Monday, November 28, 2011

Exercising for the "Little Gray Cells"

When Mother learned that her mother had Alzheimer’s, she began in earnest to ward off the disease. First, she walked vigorously up and down the graveled dirt road that ran from the highway, winding up a hillside to their Little Cabin in the Woods, as she called it. The home was, in fact, quite large and quite a distance from the highway so Mom walked a far piece, her dog close by, up and down the road. She stopped to harvest wild blackberries when they were in season and detoured across pastures to collect various grasses and plants that she dried and used as seasonal decorations.

Later, after Mother and Dad had sold the big place and built another home, smaller, with wider doorways for their declining years, Mother continued to walk the sidewalks in her neighborhood. Today, when her companions suggest a walk, Mother must slow down to allow them, one about fifty years younger, to catch up. Mom’s legs are strong, her lungs just as strong.

Three days each week, Mother participates in water aerobics. She loves the ease with which her joints work while under water, but the cold temperature in the pool has begun to trouble her. Still, she goes more days than she misses even though she can no longer manage the drive to and from. Her companions take her back and forth.

Mother also became a vegetarian for a time, and she bought cookware without any aluminum whatsoever when aluminum became suspect for a time. She played bridge as often as she could find a foursome and subscribed to Reader’s Digest so that she could take the monthly vocabulary quizzes. All these practices, experts assured her, would keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

In fact, they do not, or more accurately, they did not for my mother. I cannot speak for everyone. Someone may be vegetarian and nearly 83 without Alzheimer’s. Another may have exercised vigorously all his days and believe that exercise locked dementia outside his gates. But science now hesitates. It isn’t sure that an active body and mind will make enough difference for everyone. We only know that active bodies and minds are better every day for as many days as any of us are granted.

I admire Mother for fighting the good fight, and she continues the fight today. She refuses to yield to a nursing home; she still exercises by walking and swimming. She asks for help now and usually accepts help when it is offered. Many others are incapable of persevering in the face of setbacks. Mother is not one of them. Hers is the type of courage I hope to have.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"In the Living Years"

Mother and Dad celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at a country club near their home. Gorgeous peace roses in vibrant shades of a ripe sunset blossomed on tables. Scrapbooks that Mother had designed, their pages mapping the highlights of their lives together, set for all to peruse. Waiters in formal attire brought fine food to every table, and when we had all eaten, Mother went from table to table, introducing guests to each other and telling everyone what each guest had meant to her and Dad.

Ten more years passed, their 60th was on the horizon, and Dad had received a diagnosis: inoperable cancer. I offered to take charge of an anniversary reception in their home. Mother created a guest list, and I designed an invitation, the menu, and scheduled a photographer. My sister, her fella, and her kids refreshed the table while my husband and I washed dishes in the kitchen.

Almost everyone from far and near was present. Almost everyone was a person who would later attend Dad’s funeral, but this time, each guest was able to speak to him, pose for pictures with him, and through hugs, kisses and words, let him know how much he meant to them. Not only did Mother and Dad receive congratulations for their long-lived marriage, they also received the warmth of family and friendship in a time of letting go.

Dad lived one more year, a little past his 61st anniversary, but by the time it arrived on May 10, he was beyond sitting up, toasting, or remembering for more than a minute that he had wed his lovely bride so many years ago. I was there once again to abide with Mother, to let her know that someone remembered.

Now she does not remember her own birthday or the birthdays of her children and grandchildren. Her own wedding anniversary, Dad’s death, and Dad’s birthday pass without remark unless someone or something reminds her. On days such as Christmas or Memorial Day, she honors Dad and those who passed before him by placing flowers on graves. She seems to remember them when she does.

This last year, I was out of state when she wanted to go to her own mother’s gravesite, but my sister said she’d take care of it without Mother. My sister said she didn’t have the time to drive to Mother’s home and return to a place near her own where Grandmother’s gravesite is. Mother would just have to abide.

I would have made time because I have found that giving and being present in the living years is what I can live with. Shared joy is more satisfying so I recommend celebrating while the living are living instead of after they are gone. That 60th anniversary celebration still sustains me, and photos from it still enchant Mother.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I'm Just Here

If you recall earlier posts, I do not live near Mother. My home is more than two hours from her home so I call daily and ask, “How are you today?” Lately, the answer is “I’m just here,” and the tone resigned.

Mother dreamed of travel. She was always on the go, locally more often than globally, but globally when she could. That is exactly what she hoped to resume once Dad overcame cancer in death or through a long series of surgeries and radiation, but after Dad died, Mother did not travel.

First, she was exhausted. She had cared for Dad at home for nearly two years. Only in the last weeks did hospice intervene, and then over Dad’s objections. He wanted not only to die at home, but also in Mother’s hands—her hands alone. She had struggled to help him up when he fell, cleaned him when he fouled himself, prepared light meals growing ever lighter to sustain him, and cleaned house while he slept.

I went to see them every other weekend, sometimes every weekend, and arranged for someone to take my place at work when Dad was hospitalized or undergoing another surgery. I cannot imagine how I managed work, a home, marriage, and family during all that time while packing, unpacking, and driving, driving, driving more than five hours on the weekends. But my load was much lighter after all. Mother was confined with sickness and death in the guise of the husband she loved for sixty-one years.

A second reason that Mother did not travel right away is that she has always set goals for herself, and one she determined to fulfill before gadding about was to take back her home. She wanted to prove to herself that she could manage the financial demands she had never faced, oversee necessary repairs and renovations, and rest comfortably, unafraid, alone at home.

She had a window replaced, grew overzealous about changing the oil in two cars, and drove to her banks to talk about interest rates. Dad, having been a banker, told her that doing business face-to-face returned better yields, but neither Mother nor Dad was prepared for the changes in banking. Dividends do not go to the CD-holder. The real money is in fees, great whopping penalties, and charges for the privilege of banking; thus, Mother’s tireless efforts brought no reward.

In addition, she could not balance her checkbook. She had never had to do so until Dad was in his final months, but even then, she could not remember to write down check numbers and amounts when she paid bills so her balance was always different from the bank’s. Worse, she could not match a bank statement to her actual register. That’s when she began to ask me for help—just to unravel the mysteries and balance the accounts, then to write checks, and finally, to handle her money.

By then, Mother had lost the momentum to travel. Occasionally, she could not find her way to the hairdresser she had visited every other week for nearly twenty years. Going to the dentist became impossible. She only drove there twice a year and in between, she forgot what roads to travel. She stopped going to church for reasons unspoken, preferring to stay at home and participate in a service on television. She forgot about medical appointments and tried not to go to urban areas during rush hour—or so she said.

Still, as I mentioned earlier in this post, Mother has always set goals and rarely abandons them. Travel was a goal she intended to meet so one day, she set off to return to a town in a neighboring state where she and Dad lived for sixteen years. I had offered to take her, and I had asked her not to go, but one day, she went, proving one of her foremost character traits: resolve, also known as stubbornness.

I waited for telephone calls that never came until Mother returned called to gloat. The truth eked out little by little though. Everything had changed. Landmarks were gone. Roads were busier and wider. Towns had grown into cities. She stopped to ask for directions over and over again. Fortunately, by the Grace of all that is divine, she met kind people, none of whom took advantage of her age and confusion. They led her to her friends, and they led her home.

Now Mother is just here when I call. Both of us are sorry that she is just here. Both of us wish it could be different. But that time has flown.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

There Be Method in My Madness

Mother enjoyed elocution lessons. She learned to enunciate and emote while reading the noble words of others. She never lost her ability to mesmerize her listeners until she lost the power of speech. Oh, she can still say words, but she rarely finishes a sentence and often introduces a letter that does not belong. For example, after the doctor put her on two medicines for Alzheimer’s, she complained of being dinzee rather than dizzy. When asked to write her own name, she has to be coaxed, and even then, she may skip a letter or be unable to form it on paper.

These deficits in her late 70s and early 80s do not detract from the formidable speaker she once was, prone to making pronouncements that proved memorable. For example, when questioned about her requirements or the process she expected me to complete, she turned politician. In other words, she changed the subjector so it seemed to me. She said curtly, There’s method in my madness, an answer that never failed to shut me up. Many years later, when I read Hamlet for the first time, I realized that Mother had read the same dialogue and integrated Polonius’ observation into her own perceptions, advising me and anyone else that what may appear to be nonsensical may prove to have a logic and order behind it.

I also remember her act when I grew suspicious about a new medicine or anything strange. She’d tease me, usually squinting to examine me as if I were a bug under glass. Then she’d set one finger into motion trying to entice me with Welcome to my parlor. Now I ask you: what would you think? I had no idea what a parlor was or what she had in mind. Her joke failed to reassure me, and I remain timid about many things.

But Mother continued, prone to spout advice in fine tones and high language, saying

·      You cannot pluck roses without fear of thorns.
·      No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious.
·      Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
·      I have to live with myself and so / I want to be fit for myself to know.

No one else, including my teachers, spoke as Mother did and so, for many years, I thought she was odd. Only later, when I became a reader of the same authors—Shakespeare, Howitt, Franklin, and Guest—did I realize how much Mother remembered from her elocution lessons and how she had applied the language of poetry to the ordinary, everyday business of living. I saw that adding beautiful expression illuminated the mundane.

Once, when I knelt beside a student’s desk to help her, I lost my balance and began to totter backward. She reached out her hand and grabbed mine as I flailed for support. From my mouth came Blanche Dubois by way of Tennessee Williams: I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers. Standing again, my feet firmly beneath me, I saw the look upon my students’ faces; it said, “Daft. She’s utterly daft,” and I smiled. I knew how Mother felt. There is great fun to be had in repeating great words and even more fun in befuddling young listeners who will, in the end, rise to the challenge and understand. Thanks, Mom.