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.

Reinvention and resilence

“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.

Footprints in the snow

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.

Signs on the path

I encountered conflicting messages on several signs near a stoplight this afternoon.

On my right, the one at the Lutheran church proclaimed: “Be happy, be heathy”.

But on my left sat others, as part of a Halloween display.

The setting was a small grave yard, with tombstone signs advising, “Rest in peace”.

The irony was jarring.

Yet later on a relaxing walk below falling gold leaves, I found a message in the earlier sign paradox.

I know for sure my husband and parents who’ve passed from Alzheimer’s and dementias are now at peace.

And they’d all want me to be happy and healthy, which I am.

But I did keep my walk brief to go home and fill out more paperwork.

As I’m well aware I will be calmer once their three small estates are finally completed.

Climbing rose of hope

It was one long, lonely walk down drafty hospital corridors at 1:00 a.m. to get to my car last December 26. The plastic holiday wreaths left me as cold as my car did while I struggled to get the engine to turn over.

I’d pulled into the lot 15 hours before, the wife of a sick man.

I was now pulling out, a widow.

While navigating snow packed roads below guided by the twinkling stars above, I thought how different my journey would be in the days ahead.

And it has been.

But so far it’s been a trip offering incredible growth and promise.

I’ve learned how to grieve and did for my husband, and finally for Mom who passed the year before.

I’ve learned to channel disappointment with obstacles found on the caregiving path into gemstones, by reaching out to others through writing and volunteering.

And I’m re-learning how to have fun.

Probably my biggest opportunity.

Though I still occasionally fall into the ditch lamenting loss of family members and loss of a decade to caregiving, I like to think of myself as a climbing yellow rose.

I plan to keep on growing and reaching for every brilliant star in the sky.

As there still many miles of scenic roadways left to travel, offering just the right vantage point.

Harvesting Joy

Harvesting joy doesn’t come easily to me.

But I’m not giving up.

I continue to pull out the weeds of the last decade of caregiving for my family members with memory loss.

This morning with the falling rain, I reflected back on a few of the thornier broad leaf moments overshadowing me the last few years:

-The call from the neuro-psych to pick up my PhD spouse just five minutes into a two hour appointment. “There’s no memory left to test,” I was told.

-The instant reality check when I realized my husband’s dementia had far exceeded Mom’s during one of her care conferences.

-Discovering Mom had left Dad (with his Alzheimer’s) alone overnight after falling down a flight of stairs. Mom’s own dementia had finally surpassed her judgment.

-Watching some friends fade away when they couldn’t cope seeing my middle aged husband wilt deeper into dementia.

Maybe they thought they’d catch it.

Yet I realize now I’ve been blessed with an iPad and memories as a form of healing, and possibly as tools to support those going through something similar.

Perhaps even as a way to educate those who are not.

I know I’m also fortunate to have my own health as I begin to volunteer as a companion to caregivers who are overwhelmed and often alone.

And there are lots of them.

I know. I was one of them.

With the rains now subsiding, I’ll continue climbing up my hill to gather that spray of bountiful joy.

And to any caregiver reading this, I’m planning on dedicating my bouquet of sunshine especially to you.

So few deserve it more.

Still no angel

There’s a middle school picture of me still hanging up in a busy brick building in a nearby town.

There I am.

Perfectly rigid.

‘Old pizza face’.

But at least my eyes are open for once.

I’m probably about thirteen.

And not looking happy at all about having my picture taken.

I’m wearing a long white polyester robe.

And it’s confirmation time.

Though not quite fitting the part of an angel in the shot, at least I was faking it pretty good.

I’ll be walking right past that fading portrait in my parents’ old church soon. I’ll be meeting with the coordinator of a group that helps caregivers, and those directly under their care.

It’s another one of my ’50 by 60′ bucket list items.

I’ve just offered to visit caregivers’ homes on Saturdays and spend time with their spouses or parents while they get a chance for some respite themselves.

Although the group has many opportunities, it’s the one way I can help right now while I’m still working.

This group acted as another set of valued eyes on my parents when they were still living. It’s now my turn to return the favor.

I expect to do my visiting loaded down with fresh flowers to brighten moods of caregivers.

And tactile puzzles and art projects to engage their loved ones.

I’ll also be sure to pack plenty of extra hugs in case they’re needed.

And I’m thinking they will be.

I hope I’ll make at least one small difference in each caregiver’s day as I stop by.

Though I expect I’ll be getting much more out of the experience then they will.

I’ll still never be an angel, but as I continue to age I’m happy my self absorption as a teen is now many decades behind me.

And that finally I smile a lot more in pictures, even knowing my eyes are probably closed yet again.