I’ll be the first to admit this decade has been far from my favorite. Overlapping responsibilities of caring for four generations simultaneously some years, while working full time can wear any girl down. Yet many days, I’ve been blessed with a beautiful gift. A surprise. And today was one of them.
With my morning mug of coffee, I read something my 24 year old daughter Nicole posted last night about her tumultuous teen years. She first moved to America and joined our family 12 years ago from Russia.
Becoming part of a new family and a new country isn’t easy. It becomes even harder when you make that change as an adolescent who didn’t start school in Russia until the third grade.
Nicole immediately found it challenging here dealing with peer pressure, while learning a new language. Dealing with parents again, after being in an orphanage for 6 years couldn’t have been simple for her either. And seeing my husband’s increasing memory loss only further complicated the other issues for her.
By the time Nicole settled deeper into the teen years, I was finding items under the mattress no parent wants to discover. There were nights of missed curfews, a couple of climbs out the bedroom window, and other memories that still make my hair gray just thinking about them.
Yet my daughter survived and has matured. She is a great mother to my little grandkids. And she’s developed into a strong, authentic writer in a language she’s only known for 12 years.
Last night as Nicole wrote about these years, she thanked her Dad and I, as well as a few others who’ve helped her along the way.
“Without you guys, I would have been one lost soul” she typed.
But I’m thinking I would have been one lost soul without Nicole.
My first job as I turned 16 was as a waitress for 95 cents an hour plus tips at a KFC franchise/delicatessen. A weird combo for sure. Mom used to tell me, “Don’t complain. It’s better than plucking feathers at a turkey factory.” She had a point.
About a month into the job, a customer kept watching me between slurps of Matzoh ball soup and bites of a fried chicken leg with extra seasoning. Finally she spoke asking me, “Your mother’s name is Carol. Right?”
It turned out the customer and Mom slid down the same gray school halls in a small town about 90 miles west of here.
The woman then broke into a grin and announced, “You look just like her!”
Horror of horrors! This is not something you ever want to hear as a insecure teenager. Not that I hadn’t been told the same before. Relatives had confused my toe-headed baby pictures with Mom’s for years. And more than one elderly aunt had mistakenly called me Carol. But being told I looked like my Mom as a teen? I was devastated.
I put together a plan of attack to do everything I could to look and be different. I grew my hair long and I bleached my hair blonder than it was. I even broke out in pimples and gained weight. I started to pat Mom on the head whenever she called me her baby to make it clear I was taller than her. And also to make a statement I was nobody’s baby anymore. I was me!
But fast forward a few decades and here I am with basically the same haircut as Mom in the picture.
I’m thinking she looks better than I do. Her hair turned a beautiful brown and I’m going gray. And she has less wrinkles, too. It must have been the pink bottle of Oil of Olay she always swore by.
Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of Mom’s passing. In her final days she was ever smiling, just like in the picture. At her funeral I counted twenty friends and relatives who approached me and asked, “Do you know who you look like?”
I answered each questioner, “Yes, I do.”
And I smiled proudly every time.
I visited today with my husband and another resident who I believe is younger than me. It once brought me to tears to meet someone so young with memory loss, but I now accept I can’t make her illness go away as much as I’d like to. And I can’t make my husband’s disappear either.
Though my conversation with the woman contained few words as speech is difficult for her, I’m very happy I made her smile. And I know we enjoyed each others’ company.
Sitting on a dock afterwards, I felt blessed to see cattails in the breeze, a blue sky above and cool water below. Even the tiny trees with their early changing leaves, put me at peace. They provided a gentle reminder as I continue to travel through my 50s, I’m getting closer to the autumn of my own life. I know I won’t have time for sadness, but I’m confident I’ll have time in the years ahead to create more smiles for those with this challenging illness.
And that’s something I’m definitely looking forward to.
I’ve been thinking I need to do something with the “About Me” section of the blog. The problem is I’m still trying to figure out who I am. So rather than be overwhelmed by the task, maybe I should just add a note on who I am this one beautiful August morning.
I’m a woman who’s had a lot of change in 10 years:
-I became a first time mother.
-We adopted a 12 year old daughter from Russia, who’s now given me the gift of three wonderful grandchildren.
-In rapid succession, in 4 of the last 10 years, I lost my father to Alzheimer’s, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and my husband was diagnosed with young onset dementia in his mid 50s.
Mom passed away last fall from her dementia. My husband is now in a late stage of his disease, speaking about three words. I don’t believe he’s known who I am for several years.
I work full time and currently have my husband in a group home, but that may change soon. I am blessed that he is is content. I’m working at being content as well. Writing and photography help with that goal and bring me much joy.
I have a couple of great dogs. And since I am focusing on who I am, just for today, I’m also trying to figure out how to get out the back door to walk them. I’ve had a big chunk of my 100 year old oak tree fall on my house this week in a storm.
But I’m sure we’ll find a path. We always do in life.
As requested, here is Grandma’s full Angel Pie recipe that I described in a post on Sunday. And of course,
it’s in Grandma’s own writing. She would have loved that I was able to share it.
I attended a picnic tonight at my husband’s group home. The families of the residents all brought something to share. I could tell Richard’s favorite was the the freshly baked peach cobbler. He didn’t want to surrender his empty plate. All the residents looked happy to see new friendly faces around and new summer foods to try.
The sun finally broke out, the humidity was gone, and a gentle breeze settled in. After we ate, we settled Richard into a rocking chair on the deck. I sat next to him. Richard gently grabbed for my arm, and then my hand. He hasn’t done that for many years. It reminded me of a family picnic years ago when he grabbed my hand, and asked my father Dad if he could have that hand in marriage.
I don’t know if he knew who I was tonight. I’d like to think he did. But I do know his simple gesture made me smile.
I’ll settle for that.
When my husband Richard and I first started discussing whether we should adopt a child 15 years ago Richard joked, “I’ll need someone to come visit me in the rest home.” I immediately told him I was not amused.
Looking back, it’s a bittersweet comment. Sometimes I wonder if he had a sense of what was to come.
Our daughter had only been with us a couple of years when early signs of Richard’s memory loss began to appear. Unfortunately she didn’t get to know her Grandma and Grandpa long either, before their Alzheimer’s and dementia settled in.
But I believe the memories she and I have of the three of them are treasured even more because of the illnesses they’ve endured, and the losses we’ve felt. We value every last detail of the many good days enjoyed with Richard, Mom and Dad. Yet we’ve also accepted the more challenging ones, and the different kind of memories they bring.
With the population of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia expected to grow dramatically the next few years, as well as their caregivers, I hope more families and friends stop to appreciate the memories they’re creating each day. It may be as simple as a shared joke, a shared meal, or a big bear hug.
Keep these simple memories close to your heart, and hold them tight. You won’t want to lose them.