Blue Highways

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
― Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Since the moment those deep soulful eyes first met mine, I knew the 6 year old corgi resting before epitomized grace.

And I sensed her grace would help lead me through the journey I was on.

Much like a spirit animal, I thought.

I’d brought my husband Richard along for the long ride to meet Maddie.

“We’re going to drive north and we’ll just take a look,” I’d told Richard earlier that morning eight years ago as I hurriedly entered the interstate to beat the heavy rush hour traffic.

But I doubt he was even listening.

Richard’s early onset dementia had also been rapidly accelerating, as was my stress. And my mother’s dementia seemed to be on the same fast track.

When we arrived at the animal shelter four hours later Maddie spotted us, sporting a smile. She soon rolled to her back, begging for a belly scratch.

I quickly felt my stress melt in spite of the chilly weather.

Maddie had been a former working dog.

“She’s was from a very questionable backyard breeder,” the volunteer told me frowning.

Living on a back porch in the frigid winter months producing litter after litter must have been miserable, I remember thinking.

Yet looking back it seemed Maddie did learn resilience, and fine tuned her nurturing skills while there.

Maybe I have as well through all she’s shared with me over the years.

Today my caregiving responsibilities are gone with the death of my husband and my mom a few years go. I’ve retired from being a caregiver, at least for now.

Maddie and I have become seniors ourselves though she’s outpacing me some in that race.

My girl’s 98 in dog years, and is totally lame.

She’s getting tired, but is still happy most days.

“You need to start thinking about Maddie’s end of life, and her quality of life,” the vet told me recently.

“I am,” I replied with a look of resignation as I walked out.

I was in desperate need of a good cry.

It quickly became my purpose that day to see the controversial movie, “A Dog’s Purpose”.

In the film I knew there was a well loved corgi portrayed who passed away.

My sobbing started as soon as that corgi appeared on screen.

And my tears were quickly creating a waterfall.

They blocked my vision as I stumbled out of my seat, past the buttered popcorn, and then blindly entered the mens’ room in search of more Kleenex.

I apologized profusely to the three gentlemen in there who were staring at me.

Now that my tears are finely gone, I’m watching for more signs that it’s time for Maddie to move on.

This morning she smiled up at me when she spotted me, just as she has so often.

I’ve been blessed to witness plenty of those warm smiles on the sometimes bumpy journey we’ve shared together.

Yet I’m also starting to pay attention to what Maddie has to say as well.

Unfortunately there are no carefully drafted end of life wishes for our aging canine friends.

“Are you ready to go girl?” I ask Maddie if she’s looking a bit down sometimes at night.

I’m not hearing an answer, at least yet.

Author Jon Katz has written in his book ‘Talking to Animals’, “If we listen, they can tell us.”

One day soon I know that Maddie will.

And I’ll be there to help her along, no matter what path she decides to take.

I only hope she can run again like the wind.

Blooming in a storm

Sometimes it’s easier to do nothing.

Sometimes you realize you must.

In a four year period my father died from Alzheimer’s, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and also my husband Richard.

Life wasn’t pretty back then.

And my coping skills were more than spent.

Since Alzheimer’s and dementia are ultimately fatal diseases, Mom and Richard also soon joined Dad in the after life.

It’s been three years now since Richard, the last of the three, passed away.

I wanted to stay far, far away from the battles of anger, frustration, and pain I often felt while caregiving.

Yet after watching a recent PBS special that spoke of the “tsunami” of Alzheimer’s, I was drawn back into the war. http://www.pbs.org/tpt/alzheimers-every-minute-counts/about/the-film/

With the numbers of those afflicted woth Alzheimer’s increasing dramatically, it’s no wonder the show refered to the disease as both a “human tragedy and an economic one as well” for our country.

Last week I was asked to facilitate an Alzheimer’s support group for caregivers.

I admit I stalled some in making my decision and went for a long walk around the lake to mull it over.

Was I emotionally ready? Did I have the right skill set? Did I have the time?

Then I thought again of all those caregivers. Warriors who are battling the biggest storm of their life, or at least of their loved ones.

As I finished my trek, I stood and looked at the beautiful vista unfolding before me.

Maybe I could help some caregivers find a patch of blue sky and even bloom just a little on the darkest days.

I went home and immediately sent a note of acceptance for this great opportunity to serve.

How could I not?

Oh, the places you’ll go

“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.

Everybody needs a muse

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.

The curator

The blade is dull.

Once a shining wedding present, the 23 year old carving knife now acts as a bookmark in his office.

It sits in the middle of a coffee stained pottery book resting on an artist’s easel.

This still life is to the left of a collection of quarters, dimes and nickels meticulously rearranged into three fresh piles every morning.

I notice the jingle from the soup spoons he carries daily in his pockets has been replaced by the sweeter sound of tiny baby spoons belonging to my granddaughter.

It seems a curator’s job is never quite done.

Even when the mind appears to be.

Canine caregivers

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.

Spring Chickens

Many days I don’t exactly feel like a spring chicken.

In fact, far from it.

I’m sure that sense of my own mortality tapping on the window came from Dad’s death from Alzheimer’s, Mom’s dementia diagnosis, and then my husband’s.

All 3 events ocurred within a 4 year time frame.

I often catch myself wondering if I’m destined to become yet another statistic.

But then I’ll hear a story of amazing grace while aging that gives me hope.

Just like I did earlier this morning.

There’s a vibrant woman in her 90s in Minnesota who is still teaching 5 year olds how to read, and enjoying every minute. It’s obviously keeping her young.http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/03/09/excellent-educator-south-elementary-lucille-decker/

As I drove off today to my new job at an elementary school, I smiled knowing I’d soon be reading with five year olds as well.

Perhaps there really is a fountain of youth.

Or at least, it seems, I’ve finally found mine.

Handsome Man

“You need a handsome man.”

I wasn’t looking for any advice, but recently got some anyway from my five year old grandson.

My daughter Nicole and grandkids had stopped over for a pizza party.

Nicole shook her head commenting, “Where’d he ever pick up that line?”

I quickly turned the topic over to the Mickey Mouse holiday puzzle in front of us.

It will be two years next week since my husband Richard passed from early onset dementia and other related health issues. He left us the day after Christmas.

In terms of holidays, Christmas has never been my favorite. Thanksgiving’s always ranked number one on my list.

Maybe it’s because I prefer gratitude to the greed that often blooms bright in December.

Yet I knew Christmas had snuck in the door once I noticed the annual Lutefisk dinner ads posted in the bathroom stalls at the local Lutheran church.

Still no handsome man was going on my wish lists and most of my Christmas decorations were donated as part of my recent move to a smaller home.

With that move, I’m now living a mile from the hospital where my husband died. And I need to drive by it every night to return home from work.

I’d recently found the gray December weather had made me blue, particularly once the annual holiday light display was turned on again at the hospital.

But one night last week I noticed for the first time a shining star to the north while driving by.

It rested atop the hospital’s brick tower where my husband spent his final days in hospice.

I found myself smiling as I looked up.

And then I turned the radio over to the all Christmas music station.

As light flurries began to fall, I continued driving north to pick up one potential gift I’d put on hold.

This one’s a gift for me.

And I know he will be for others through the volunteer hospice work we’ll be doing.

You see, I ended up taking my grandson’s advice after all.

I went and found myself a handsome man.

And it seems my four legged fellow already knows how to give perfect puppy kisses.

One Dog’s Christmas Story

It was five years ago this week when I drove through a snowstorm to meet Grandma Greta, a soon to be 11 year old chi-doxie mix.

She was signed up for a holiday adoption event with a local rescue group.

I’d noticed her image on the masthead for the group’s website. Those jet black airplane ears taking half of the width of the page definitely caught my attention.

I was about to retire from short term dog fostering at the time.

My husband Richard’s rapidly declining memory loss had made conducting home visits and attending meet and greets with foster dogs unrealistic.

I’d been thinking instead about becoming a permanent foster of a hard to place black senior dog.

I had no particular interest in 4 pound yippee pocket dogs, but there was something about Greta’s gray muzzle and those big black ears.

And also her life story.

She’d spent the first 10 years on the road with a trucker who was ill, then a family with young children who terrified her.

After dropping off my husband at his adult day care center, I finally arrived at the busy pet warehouse that chilly Saturday.

I wandered inside, past the line for Santa to the back of the store, where I immediately recognized little Greta.

Instantly, I was smitten. I knew she was going home with me that day.

Against my better judgement, I decided to bring her over to Santa for a picture. The challenges of my husband’s dementia had been bringing me down and I thought a photo would put me in the holiday spirit.

Greta wasn’t exactly thrilled as I placed her in Santa’s lap. One photo was taken and then she jumped to the floor, slipping and sliding across rows of shiny linoleum and underneath ceiling high shelving units.

A store employee and I finally trapped her.

Santa never even got Greta’s wish list.

Still I bought Greta an extra small snowflake sweater and raw hide even though I was thinking she probably deserved some coal in her stocking.

The first couple of weeks at home, Greta was very icy towards me. I saw those tiny teeth of hers a few more times than I would have liked.

Yet she seemed to immediately warm up to Richard.

I would place her in his lap each night. Though he no longer spoke more than a few words, Richard would always instinctively stroke her back and Greta would peacefully doze off.

As Greta loved food, I was finally able to bribe my way into her heart some as well.

Not long after Greta moved in, it was necessary to transition my husband to a group home. Greta loved it there and would twirl around in her 25 cent garage sale pink tutu for all the residents to see.

And she would continue to nap in my husband’s lap on those visits until he passed away two years ago this Christmas.

Yet afterwards Greta reinvented herself once again.

She decided she was now my lap dog.

And she also became a social butterfly.

Greta loved to visit dog friendly coffee shops and bookstores. She’d be in her glory on long road trips or even short jaunts to McDonalds. And she was a big
fan of pet friendly church services where she’d always try to steal the communion bread and wine.

Greta discovered too that she was no longer afraid of young children in the area. They all believed she was still a puppy at sixteen because of her tiny size and spunk.

I like to think she really was flattered as she was quite the little diva after all.

Yesterday morning I wrapped up my little diva in her favorite red velveteen blanket from the couch.

And we took a drive in a snowstorm.

This time it was to the vet, as she hadn’t been feeling well.

The vet told me it was time for Greta to move on once again.

Crying some, I agreed. And I let her go.

Afterwards, I bought another red velveteen blanket at the store. And last night my other dogs Tucker, Maddie, and I watched “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” on TV while resting on Greta’s favorite couch.

I dozed off a bit, and awakened later to the sound of a train whistle from the tracks that run by the depot where my husband’s memorial service was held.

I smiled, thinking perhaps Greta was helped up to that holiday train and found her way back to my husband’s lap wherever he may be.

The thought gave me comfort, and I slept like a baby.

And Grandma Greta, I hope you are as well.

Soul Sister

Ok. I should have known better.

I’d driven over to the shelter to buy some shiny new dog collars that were donated as a part of a big fundraiser.

But first I decided to stop in the adoption room upstairs to play with the kittens. I admit I’m more of a dog person, but there’s something so special about a new kitten.

It had been a particularly hard day. It was a few weeks after I’d moved my husband to a facility for round the clock care due to the severity of his dementia.

Surely some soft little fur balls ought to soothe my nerves, I thought.

And they were mighty cute as I watched them wrestle, then snuggle up tight with each other afterwards.

One of the kittens I spotted was a little larger than the rest.

A pretty calico.

But I probably should say she spotted me.

I could hear her tiny paws scratching on the glass as she tried to jump up and down, attempting to get my attention.

“Pick me, pick me,” she seemed to be saying.

I smiled down at her.

“Ok, but we’re only going to play, and just for a few minutes,”  I whispered.

I then carried the little calico into one of the smaller ‘get acquainted’ rooms for some one on one time. She immediately jumped up on my lap and purred, and then purred some more.

And she wasn’t budging.

A young gum cracking employee handed me her information card.

“Her real name’s Maddie and she’s 13,” she told me while reading the expression on my face.

“I know. Everyone thinks she’s a kitty”, she added now cracking a smile.

“She’s been around here quite a while. You know, her being so old and all.”

As you’ve may have guessed, little Miss Kitty went home with me that night.

And I forgot to buy the new shiny dog collars.

Ms. Kitty’s been a gift to have around and has sensed each of my moods. She’s also shown love and compassion.

And of course, that older cats rule.

We’ve supported each other through life’s most challenging days.

In fact, little Miss Kitty’s been my soul sister.

I thought I might lose her right before my husband went into hospice 18 months ago, but she rallied and was in turn a spirit cat for me when my husband passed. And also for the first year after.

But on Friday morning Miss Kitty suddenly looked older.

And more weary.

When I came home after work, I noticed she hadn’t eaten her food.

While preparing for a visit to the vet, she took her last tiny breath.

But peacefully, and on her own terms.

I’m wondering if she sensed her work was done here, and that she could finally relax?

I do know I miss having her company on my lap as I write this, but I am content.

Though I said I should have known better then to take her home with me four years ago, I’m so glad that I did.

Because as I have come to learn, some loss will always be a part of a life well lived.