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.
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?
“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.
My husband Richard passed away three years ago tonight, but I find myself celebrating in a way.
Sure his life was cut too short, and his early onset dementia was cruel, yet most of his days were good ones.
It seems Richard knew how to live well.
His life was never a rich one monetarily, but it was in experiences, accomplishments, and in his work with the arts community.
Richard also knew how to laugh.
And mostly, at himself.
The first time I met Richard at a dinner party, he was already making the others guests hysterical while describing a crazy New Year’s Eve just spent with an elderly aunt in Boston.
And Richard would always be the first to chuckle at the graduate school pictures of himself from the 70’s with his long brown hair, skinny torso, and Barnaby Street bell bottom suits.
By the time I met him a decade later at the party, he was sporting instead a marine cut, balding white hair, and a slight Santa pot belly masked under preppy flannels.
I believe I admired most Richard’s ability to share his loving heart with others.
And often to those with the greatest need.
Richard was the first to mention the idea of adopting a very special 12 year old girl from Russia. And did he ever LOVE to spoil this girl after our adoption was finalized and we all came back together to the U.S.
That special girl grew to become one very special lady. She, along with her young family, came over today for a belated Christmas celebration.
We had a joyful time dancing in our family room and I hadn’t thought about today’s anniversary until she pulled out one of Richard’s old graduate school photos from her purse. I then glanced briefly at some later photos of Richard on the book shelves behind her and smiled.
Perhaps in this last week of 2016, I should now be thinking about jotting down my resolutions for the new year.
Like lose that extra ten pounds or find the best job ever.
But I don’t really need too.
I’ve just realized my resolutions have been right here behind me in my family room, and in bold, ever since I down sized into my new home.
Just three short words can say it all, and I will practice them every day.
“Live, laugh, love.”
Sounds like a whole lot more fun than going on a diet.
And after all, life is just too short.
I was having one of those ‘Bah Humbug’ moments.
I’d just lost a mitten while shopping for my kitten.
I had been busily stocking up on emergency supplies at the store up the hill as a winter storm was coming.
Buying replacement mittens definitely was not on my shopping list.
But kitty litter, bread, milk, and lots of chocolate were. And all were fortunately within easy reach of the Santa cookie tins and one available smiling clerk humming “Let It Snow.”
I’m thinking their placement was geared towards keeping my spirits bright.
However, it didn’t.
I soon caught myself uttering another “Bah Humbug.”
Christmas fell off the top of my favorite holiday list way back when I was six.
That was the year the new doll smell and curly blonde hair of a baby doll delivered by Santa attracted the attention of our young beagle. Our dog thought she made the perfect chew toy.
The doll and my Norman Rockwell holiday were never quite the same.
It seems the annual arrival of frigid sub-zero weather with the holidays hasn’t helped my attitude either or all that crazy commercialism and greed.
Even family celebrations have grown a bit more bittersweet year by year.
It’s hard to forget the Christmas Eve when my late dementia stricken mother stared at her grandchildren across the dinner table and blurted out, “So who are you?”
Or the memories of sharing hospital meals of wilted salads and frosted Christmas cookies with my husband while he was in hospice three years ago.
But things really are beginning to look up.
Even in a year when peace and joy seem a bit hard to find.
Luckily, I just found that favorite mitten.
And I’m playing Santa for a few seniors, an animal rescue group, and the young children I work with.
I’m also hoping to share many more last minute smiles before the big day.
You see I once saw a flying Santa in the skies do the same.
It happened a few years ago.
I’d awakened at 6:00 a.m. to hysterical laughter on a holiday flight returning from Amsterdam.
The plane was packed full of travelers of all colors and nationalities. Many didn’t speak English.
It didn’t matter.
Everyone was looking up at the same movie screen smiling, sharing just a few brief moments of comfort and joy.
As well as those chuckles.
This time of year, no matter your beliefs, perhaps that’s what matters most.
Grief was my constant companion for much of the last ten years.
During that time I lost both of my parents, and my spouse several times over to memory loss.
Caregivers of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia first lose their loved one as their cognitive skills disappear in several unique stages.
And then they ultimately witness that final loss, with the death of their loved one.
I was no different.
By the time my husband finally passed, there were no tears left to shed.
Yet earlier this week I caught myself crying some after the election.
My tears weren’t particularly tied to the results, but more towards the hatred and lack of civility bubbling over everywhere.
Still those tears weren’t long lived as I know there is much work to do in this country.
I decided I better start with me.
I knew I had to find some peace to feel grounded if I am to be productive in the days ahead.
Making sense of this election and defining next steps will come to me in time, but only after the rhetoric has faded.
So Saturday I chose to find comfort and community while standing in line for shrimp chowder at the local butcher shop, and a generous slice of pumpkin cake at the bakery afterwards.
The warm welcomes and sweet scents soon had everyone inside smiling again.
No phones appeared or politics were spoken in either place.
And this morning it was all about blue grass and lemon grass Thai treats at our Sunday’s Farmers Market.
Humming as I left to stop by a neighborhood church service, I found myself parking further away than needed.
But I knew it would give me a chance later to walk over the bridge of a brook sparkling in the sunshine, and check in on the garden just beyond.
After the service, upon entering I discovered fragrant and strong yellow roses were still blooming in the breeze.
And cheerful white daisies, too.
I sang softly, “…life goes on in endless song” from the closing hymn I’d just heard.
Yes, I believe it really does.
Even in November of one particularly nasty election year.
Grief is a funny thing.
Or maybe not.
You think you’ve got proper protection then something bites you in the backyard.
Just like a big old mosquito.
I was outside playing with the dogs tonight when I got stung.
There laying on the freshly cut grass before me was my loving corgi Maddie. My girl’s close to 14 now and she was looking lethargic with her head down on the ground.
One of Maddie’s backlegs is lame, and now the second seems to be slowing down as well.
I joined her on my stomach anyway right next to her, and started snapping pictures.
But that usual magical spark was missing in Maddie’s eyes which was bringing me down even lower.
My girl’s expression reminded me of the words my paternal grandmother shared with me in her eighties. “It’s hell getting old,” Grandma would often say before she passed from Alzheimer’s a few years later.
I stopped and thought for a moment about about those I’ve lost in in my life, particularly in the last 3 or 4 years.
There once was a mother, one husband, and three sweet senior dogs.
Mom, my spouse Richard, and even one of the dogs had dementia. And yet they all managed to keep happy in spite of their illnesses.
Perhaps even happier than my late corgi Mariah and chi-doxie Greta who held on to their cognitive skills till the day each of them passed on.
I began to scratch Maddie’s soft belly for a while to calm her and to calm me.
Suddenly a mourning dove began to croon on the weathered fence post behind us, but it wasn’t a sad song at all.
Then a monarch darted and danced right past Maddie’s black nose demanding her attention before taking off for the barbecue next door.
Soon I saw joy and dignity return to Maddie’s face.
And I felt a growing smile on mine as my camera hooked just the shot I was looking for.
It’s definitely a keeper.
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.
I could tell my chi Rex was excited for his job interview yesterday in spite of his refusal to wear his new plaid bow tie.
My boy’s going to be a working dog, volunteering for pet visits at two local care facilities.
I was feeling nervous for Rex when I felt a big burst of adrenaline race through his tiny 7 lb body as I carried him into the busy reception area for our appointment.
Yet he listened carefully to the roles and responsibilities of the job as they were described to us.
After our interview, Rex was anxious to show off his talents with puppy kisses and lap sitting as he met a few of the dog loving residents.
His performance was admirable.
With a high population of dog lovers at the facility, it sounds like Rex is going to be one busy boy.
Once home, I shared a news story with Rex regarding the the importance of animals to our aging population. http://www.dailymercury.com.au/news/francis-robot-baby-seal-japan-helps-elderly/3038304/
And particularly those afflicted with dementia.
“Hey Rex, just think how important your work and contributions will be here, and you’re the real deal!” I told him as I shared a bite of fruit pastry as a reward.
Licking raspberry jam off my fingers, Rex looked up at me and I’m sure I saw a smile on his face.
I believe my boy understands so much more than I’ll ever know.