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.