Sweet Passage: Part One

“…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.

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.

New perspectives

It was something I hadn’t seen before.

A two year old, four year old, and seven year old, sitting still at the same time.

And my three grandkids kept on with this peaceful focus, watching the animals grazing before them.

Maybe I just hadn’t noticed before.

But then I was also slow to pick up that my once wild and wooly caterpillar of a teenager suddenly grew wings.

And then blossomed beautifully into her role as a mom.

I told her so in a Mother’s Day card I tucked into her May birthday present yesterday.

“Thanks for being such a great and loving mother to my grandchildren,” I wrote.

I like to think I’m transforming as well, growing new wings and new perspectives.

This Mother’s Day’s day I drove to my mom’s old care facility after buying a bouquet of daises and box of chocolates. I was there to attend their weekly church service.

I haven’t been back since Mom left.

I do have tough memories of my mom in the care facility with her tearful pleas to go back to her old house. And I’ll never forget the painful care conference with my husband at my side when I realized his dementia had actually surpassed that of my mom’s.

But I also have plenty memories of laughter, with Mom entertaining caregivers and fellow residents while I’d dispense her beloved Dove bars to the crowd.

As I entered the facility today I asked the receptionist to pass out chocolates to any mothers who were working.

And I asked her to share the daises with a resident who might be struggling, or having a particularly rough day.

Once I walked into the tiny chapel, I recognized a few ladies who used to sit at Mom’s dining room table.

I suddenly felt at home.

And I felt Mom right in the room with me.

The small group sang classic old hymns and listened to a sermon directed to the elderly women in the group.

“Remember to always ask for help if you need it,” the minister reminded them.

A gentle, smiling usher from the local church asked me if I would help out some Sunday with the service.

The woman said she is getting older and many of her friends are now residents themselves.

Sounds like she was listening to the sermon.

Though it isn’t something I would have done a few years ago, I’m thinking of helping out.

I can’t think of a better Mother’s Day gift for Mom.

And I know a peaceful new perspective can be mighty good for the soul.

Kudos for those who care

Bouquets for the caregivers,
Wherever they may be.
So tireless and devoted,
Often others do not see.

Sharing love with those who try,
But can’t be understood.
Giving their warm hugs and hands,
I so wish everyone would.

Little Miss Spitfire

“You’ve got yourself one little spitfire”.

We’d had more than a few people tell us that after we adopted our then 12 year old daughter Nicole from Russia.

Feisty, she definitely was.

And feisty, she still is today.

That’s one of the things I love about her.

And so did my husband, Richard, always forgiving her with endless love for each teen age tribulation she’d manage to unearth.

And maybe because we knew from day one there was another side to our daughter.

A softer, gentler side.

One of great creativity and beauty.

And capable of so much love.

When Richard and I first arrived in Russia bearing gifts before the adoption proceedings, Nicole was prepared to present us with several gifts also.

She’d cross stitched several perfect pieces and had sewn for us a beautiful potholder.

Her caregivers had taught her well.

But once Nicole moved to America, she embraced her teen age years in a new, fast world of video games and technology.

Nicole’s fiber art skills were parked in favor of the Back Street Boys, cell phones, and definitely pushing some of her parents’ buttons.

Yet my husband and I knew that softer side with its creativity was still resting deep underneath the missed Friday night curfews.

Unfortunately Nicole only knew my husband for six years before his dementia settled in.

But still her growing love for him was in full bloom by the time my husband’s illness worsened.

One year ago today she held her father’s hand, stroking it and smiling as Richard rested in a hospice bed on his final Christmas Eve birthday.

Ever thankful she was for the gift of his short rally in cognition for a few hours. Richard even tried to talk to her some, smiling back up at Nicole’s pretty face.

I like to think that smile may have ignited Nicole’s creativity again.

Taking a short break outside that afternoon she immediately began to sculpt smiling faces in snowbanks as a response to my husband’s grin, spreading joy to all looking on.

Yesterday Nicole, her fiancé, and my grandchildren celebrated an early Christmas with me. As we exchanged gifts, I pulled out an extra one for her on behalf of my late husband.

It was a bag full of pannettone (Italian sweetbread), pelmeni (Russian dumplings), and Russian chocolates.

My husband and daughter always shared a passion for the same foods, especially around the holidays.

Nicole smiled, as she opened the gift and card, her eyes growing wide and misty when she saw the chocolates.

And then my daughter gave me my gifts.

Her bag included a pair of a sparkling red slippers she’d crocheted along with a beautiful Christmas potholder.

My husband would have smiled at the sight.

I sure did.

Nicole also whispered that she’d purchased a child’s crochet kit for Christmas for my granddaughter.

The sweet seven year old so wants to learn the craft, and be just like her mom.

I smiled again.

It seems my once little spitfire has now grown into a blessed flame of creativity, great warmth, and such incredible love.

How lucky am I.

Gentle souls

Today my Facebook news feed gifted me a joking reference to two elderly women and senility.

Maybe call it holiday humor.

But I call it cruel.

I admit I’m overly sensitive after a decade of care taking for my late parents and husband afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementias.

But there’s nothing funny about a grandma asking her grandkids on Christmas Eve, “So who are you?”

Or discovering one morning your spouse can no longer speak full sentences.

But I may have been bothered most by the post’s unkind reference to aging women.

Feeling a bit old myself this morning, I couldn’t help but think don’t mature women deserve better?

What ever happened to respect and dignity, anyway?

I spent yesterday visiting two gentle souls in different locations, each nearly ninety years young.

Both of these women are bright, full of life and ever so wise.

And they’re also gorgeous.

The women reminded me of another elegant lady I knew who passed away earlier this year at 96. An accomplished author, she kept researching and writing well into her 90s, publishing her last book at 92.

All three women have taught me much. And yesterday the two I visited with shared some invaluable lessons.

First, just because you’re older, you’re still vibrant and very much alive. You can offer wisdom and perspective the young never can.

Second, should memory become impaired in one’s final years, gifts of love and warmth will still shine through.

I’m thinking these gifts will be more than enough to top off my stocking come Christmas morning.

French lessons

“So there she is, the Mona Lisa!”

We stood gazing up at that famous winsome smile for maybe 10 seconds.

Max.

My husband Richard suddenly looked restless, tapping his shiny right wing tip up and down.

“It’s way overrated. Let’s move on,” he instructed.

And so we did, removing ourselves from the growing huddled mass paying homage to the Louve’s beloved star.

Richard directed me on to yet another room where there was a smaller fan club admiring a Peter Paul Ruben masterpiece adorned with nubile nude goddesses.

“Now THIS is a painting,” he announced, beaming like a proud papa as he looked up.

I quickly learned that day my husband had a strong passion about art, artists, and opinions about both.

And I was about to learn so much more about him in the course of this one special week in France.

For Richard, Paris was as much a home turf as his hometown of Dorchester, MA.

He’d lived in the Marias district of Paris for a year while researching and writing for his graduate school program in art history.

Now a museum curator, Richard was in France on this trip for business, but I was fortunate to tag along to make the visit a honeymoon as well.

For me the trip was a whirlwind of gallery and museum visits, as well as introductions to his French friends and colleagues.

I noticed Richard’s great love of France bubbled through with great enthusiasm in every activity, and in every word of French he spoke.

He showed me his favorite neighborhoods and cafés, historical monuments and churches, with full and accurate detail on each.

And he even introduced me to his favorite art dealer on the Seine who sold old prints and drawings to poor couples like us for the price of a pizza.

As Richard would carefully sort through each work on paper, his boyish grin would appear every time he found something he liked.

And those blue eyes would sparkle.

I learned something else about my new husband on that trip I know I’ll never forget.

For a wedding present, my parents had given us cash for a romantic dinner at a classic restaurant author Ernest Hemmingway frequented many decades ago.

Richard, being a great seafood fan thought the restaurant would be the perfect place for me to meet up with my first raw oyster.

And I did.

It also was my first and last encounter with one of those slimmy sliders.

Feeling weak after I dragged myself back to the hotel, I spent the rest of my honeymoon in the bathroom.

Turns out that oyster was one very bad boy.

But Richard was very good.

Never blinking an eye, he continued to hold my hair back why I worshipped the commode in front of me for three days straight.

Richard and I had only known each other 11 months when we married, but my hunch about him was right.

He was a compassionate and caring person who taught me so much.

I like to believe each memory we created is a masterpiece, something to still savor and admire.

We married on a snowy Saturday, 28 years ago today.

Though Richard passed away the day after Christmas from complications related to dementia, I’m now busy creating new memories.

I may even back go to that old Hemmingway haunt in Paris someday for another meal.

But next time, I’ll be asking for ham and cheese on a baguette.

As I believe I learned one French lesson particularly well.