Lost

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We sat behind a couple in church this morning who we have known for a very long time. They are older and we see them frequently at local restaurants where they eat breakfast every day. We always stop at their table to say hi, and they are a friendly and kind couple.

Martha is in the early stages of dementia – we recognize the signs because JB’s mother suffered (and also our family, collaterally) from it for many years. This morning, during the time when we greeted each other with a passing of the peace of Christ, Martha wandered a little too far in the sanctuary – across to the next isle. A friend brought her back, saying “Here’s Don” as her husband stepped aside so she could slide into the pew. Martha was returned to him about two seconds after I saw the panic in his quick scan of the area because Martha wasn’t where he had left her as he said hello to friends around him.

Martha was really pissed. As she sat down she mumbled, sarcastically “Are you Don? Like I don’t know who you are!” And she seemed to stew for quite a few minutes. When she first became disoriented, I’m sure she felt some fear but by the time she was guided back to where she wanted to be the fear had morphed into anger.

I think I can understand this type of anger, now that I’m experiencing some of the losses that come with becoming old – understand it from my heart and gut, not just in my head from reading it in a book sometime along the way to here. My hunch is that Martha was angry because she was embarrassed, felt the shame of not being who she knew she was, of not being mentally competent enough to…  Find her way back to her seat in church.

I didn’t see the scene of when Martha became confused but I would guess that she looked confused and asked, almost to herself, “Where’s Don?” Her friend could have pointed Don out, but because the friend had been sitting in front of them, she took Martha’s hand, walked her the few feet to where they had been sitting, and said, “Here’s Don.” I can see myself doing the same thing for Martha. But Martha knew what had happened and her sense of self fought back. Her memory had failed her in a way that shouldn’t fail adults – people who have always been competent and capable – especially of finding their way back.

I grieve for Martha, and I am vigilant. I am aware that I am loosing small, itty-bitty pieces of myself in a slow but steady pace. I worry about small signs that I see in my aging loved ones, those signs that may or may not be leading to serious loss of abilities.

When I am with friends we talk about whether it would be harder to loose mental or physical functioning. We wonder if people with dementia ever reach the happy place where they don’t recognize that they have lost their ability to make decisions about the most basic of human being. We worry about becoming socially cut off, left out of social gatherings, if we become physically disabled. And of course we worry about becoming dependent on others for our most basic needs – like being fed, and bathed and toileted.

What seems strange about these musings is that I have been reading about what to do to help myself remain vibrant and “youthful.” I work puzzles and keep active, both socially and physically. I usually eat healthy. But the truth is that I am going to lose mental and physical capacities – I already have. And I don’t know what the future will bring forth. All I can do is have faith that I will adjust in a mostly graceful fashion, and will find meaning and pleasure in my remaining days. I sure hope so.

 

Road Trip to a Memory Farm

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For many months JB has been talking about taking a little road trip, just a couple of counties to the west, so I could take photos of the one-room school his cousin Sarah attended, so many, many years ago. We decided to go yesterday before the shrubs and trees are in full leaf – because last time he saw it, it was overgrown. He wanted to show me the school because he knows I like one-room schoolhouses, and he wanted to go see it again because he has a fond memory of going to a special family event there with Uncle Ralph, Aunt Ester and Sarah. Or maybe the time was right to visit it for just one more time. Do we need to do that to find resolution in our minds between what was with what is? Who we were and what we had – with who we are and what we have? Or maybe who we aren’t and what we don’t have any more?

We found our way to N Drive N instead of N Drive S and JB pulled onto the shoulder of the road. There were ranch houses on both sides of the road, except for the large, remodeled farm house on our right. He explains that the garage hadn’t been there, that was where the milk house was. The front porch with the gables hadn’t been there and what we could see between the house and garage had been the passage way to the milk house. The house had seemed further back from the road and there had been a big side yard where he had played on a swing, waiting for Sarah to come home from school on the school bus. Getting to ride a bus to school intrigued him then because he lived in the city and walked to school. I didn’t pick up my camera because seeing the farm house “within” the house we were looking at took a real stretch of my imagination – but JB could see it.

He spent more time looking within his own memories than trying to undo and explain away all the changes that had been made to the house. But then he became more vocal as he swept his arm in a large arch to explain that all the barns and out buildings had been on the other side of the road. I could see them, could image them being there instead of the ranch houses. I could feel the excitement he must have felt when he was able to spend the night at Uncle Ralph’s farm.

We talked a bit about Uncle Ralph and Aunt Ester. JB told me about the orchard he had planted, his cows, how the farm had been on both sides of the road – with a lane that went up a hill that Sarah and he used for sledding. Uncle Ralph had been industrious and hard working – that was what JB was remembering, until Uncle Ralph and Aunt Ester hit the sauce big time. Alcoholism was a big problem in his mother’s side of the family. The alcoholism is his most recent memory of them and maybe he needed to reconciled the later memories with the earlier memories that were so positive and happy and loving.

It wasn’t a long drive down N Drive S until he found the school. The brush had been cleared around it and someone had made some changes to make it into a home, although it is currently abandoned.

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I took a few photos, trying to capture JB’s memories. JB wandered around. I was soon drawn to the redbud and dogwood in full bloom across the road. A strong wind was bringing in some rain so I enjoyed the challenge of experimenting with different settings on my new lens to get an interesting depth of field of moving targets.

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When I returned from my deep concentration, JB was standing in the middle of the road looking at the old school. I walked over and cuddled up to him, gently commenting on how wonderful old memories are. He smiled and said that it doesn’t matter that the school isn’t as it was. I agree. Sometimes we need to visit places that once created good memories. But what remains from the past is only important for helping us remember the “once upon a time” experiences that have stayed with us and influenced, in some way, who we currently are.

We slowly drove a half mile or so down a dirt road as JB talked about the stream that went though Uncle Ralph’s fields and the really nice bridge that he could drive his tractor across. “Stop, stop, stop – back up, back up, a little more, there it is.”

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JB thought it looked like the same bridge. Maybe it is, maybe it has been rebuilt, maybe it is a new bridge built for some new purpose. It really doesn’t matter because in our eyes it is Uncle Ralph’s tractor bridge to the next field. And my prayer for the day is that we may all have a nice bridge to the our next field of being.

The Morning After

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A new day is dawning after our Christmas celebrations. Two of our three house guests are being transported to Toledo to catch a bus and our home is mine alone for half a day. A perfect time for reflection and meditation, and maybe a couple loads of laundry.

I am a Christian and also a person who doesn’t feel a strong need to follow convention or tradition. It is a common thread in my family that has sometimes gone so far as a willingness to break from tradition to maintain individual integrity or to adjust to new life circumstances. Every time I think of tradition I think of the wonderful play “Fiddler on the Roof.”

When my Christian church calendar celebrates the major traditions and beliefs of our holidays, I spend time in contemplation. How can I celebrate that which is so central to my life in a way that is meaningful to me? Is it important for me to also reflect my faith in public so others can see? I’m an introvert, not comfortable with public displays. My identity and integrity are based on what my heart and mind do in private much more than what my body does in public. I know other people experience their faith differently.

This is a special year for Christmas because there were Christmas services on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I didn’t attend either. We have our family Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve, a tradition we began when adult children created their own families – allowing them to spend Christmas day with in-laws. I would like to attend church on Christmas Eve but am not willing to disrupt a network of other families to meet my own spiritual need. I foresee a time in the future when this will change again as grandchildren marry and create their own families but with our children at the helm.

There were two extra guests in our house this year besides our daughter, and I could have invited them all to attend church on Christmas morning – but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, our time together eating blueberry pancakes and talking about religion and culture with our daughter’s friend and her 17-year-old daughter from Kyrgyzstan fed my spirit. I am sitting the day after, remembering our Christmas day as being filled with joy, relaxation, and way too many sweets left over from the day before. We served and nurtured each other in ways unique to the needs of each. Chynara rubbed precious Kyrgyz oil on the tight muscles of my back. I think Jesus would have enjoyed himself in our midst. Today, I shed tears of joy and gratefulness as I remember.

JB and I go to church because we recognize the need for corporate worship and the strength of living within the emotional bonds of a community of like believers. We are already looking forward to attending Lenten services in our Florida church. But we don’t feel bound to attend in order to ‘be seen’ as a good Christian, or because tradition says we should. We attend because it feeds our soul, just as our daily living in ways that are pleasing to God keeps our souls healthy and praises God.

This isn’t the way it always was, but as we are aging we are finding our spiritual needs are changing. It is how we balance our love of God, our love of others, and our love of self. In the coming year may all you, within the religion you practice and your family life-cycle stage, find a spiritual balance that is respectful and pleasing to all.

 

The Loss of Christmas Past

Christmas decorations 061-2Last week I was looking at videos of Christmas’s past. My grandsons’ mother died this past year and there were home videos I wanted to copy for them so my beloved grandsons could sort out their memories of their lives with her. She suffered from mental illness so life could be crazy sometimes. My goal was to give them something to use as they grieve and to help them sort out the naughty and nice of this part of the tapestry that is being woven to define who they will be as they age.

As so often happens, I got hijacked along the way by my own tapestry that continues to be woven, even as it is fraying along the edges. The video I watched was of Christmas, 1995. It doesn’t sound that long ago but it was, 20 years long ago. The wine I drink and the cheese I eat haven’t aged that long. In 1995 I hadn’t yet arrived at the decade I would consider the prime of my life.

I became nostalgic as I watched that video of Christmas 1995. My whole family was together – my mother came from Florida, one sister from Wisconsin, and my other sister came from Grand Rapids. They brought their husbands and children. Our son was still married and they were there with our two grandsons, along with our youngest daughter who was home from college. In the video our home was bursting with activity and laughter and stories. We were all together – well almost, except my father who had died 14 months earlier and our other daughter who was living in Russia that year.

I felt sad when I realized it was the last time we would all get together as a family for Christmas. I enjoyed watching my mother talking and laughing and teasing me – she remarried and never came to Michigan for Christmas again, dying about ten years later. My baby sister moved to northern Wisconsin, a two-day drive away, making visits for holidays difficult – besides our children have grown, with families of their own. Between my offspring increasing and my other sister not wanting to travel the two hours to our home we didn’t see them at Christmas much after 1995. She died about three years ago. I have invited my brother-in-law and two nieces to our Christmas Eve celebration but they can’t come because of work responsibilities. My son’s marriage broke up so my daughter-in-law was no longer a part of our gatherings; her death three months ago didn’t have an impact on our gathering.

As I watched Christmas Eve 1995, I also realized that our youngest daughter hadn’t met and married her husband yet so he was missing, and they hadn’t given us our three bright and beautiful granddaughters. The Christmas video reminded me that families change over the years as some people leave, others are added, and sometimes configurations change.

On Christmas Eve 2015 we once again gathered – and our family was all together again. Except it was a different configuration from 1995, and our oldest grandson, his new wife, and our new adorable (step) great-grandson couldn’t be here. This year our daughter-in-law and her two young-adult children are “official” because they married our son last summer. We had welcomed them as real family several years ago, but this year was special because of the legal change.

It was a lovely gathering, full of joy and peace and good-will. Our home was alive as gifts were lovingly exchanged, and we laughed over our feeble attempts to explain how words (like poop) are related to the Christmas story as eight people gathered for a game of Scrabble (with new rules). We gathered around a long Christmas table set and decorated by our youngest granddaughter, sharing food the better cooks lovingly prepared. There was more laughter and bantering as children and grandchildren bartered unwrapped stocking stuffers they had picked from a pile in the middle of the floor.

I took video clips throughout the afternoon because I know that someday in the future the people we shared this beautiful and sacred day with will look at it and think about how Christmas used to be, feeling sad about those who are no longer present and how much things have changed. And then, hopefully, they will feel contentment with their new Christmas traditions filled with love, joy and peace.

Thankful after Thanksgiving

mt ranier 061It is easy to sit down on Thanksgiving Day and make a list of what I am thankful for – but I felt almost repulsed by that exercise this year. Besides, after 50 years of adulthood lists they begin to look very similar – except for the occasion year when all I could be thankful for was that the prior year was over. My one daughter is there right now after a difficult year for her and her family.

This year I feel a need to do something different than think about what I am thankful for. This year I feel a shift in my being – a shift from a pause to be thankful to a different way of being in each day. I think it has to do with the aging process. I no longer need to “make it” in the sense that I did when I was in my younger years, when I was thankful for events and accomplishments that made me more “adult.” I now live with a sense of peace that I accomplished what I needed to accomplish and can forgive myself for what I wasn’t able to do. I also know that I lived a good life, attributed in part to good decisions but also because that unpredictable, uncontrollable fickle finger of fate worked in my favor bringing opportunity and wonderful family and friends into my life along the way. Occasionally I have brief moments of sadness over paths that I could have taken “if only…,” until I remember the joys of the paths I chose. Sometimes I’m hit with grief over family and friends who have died, but also feel the joy of having had them in my circle of love.

That seems to be where my mind goes when I pause to be thankful – I think about the past. Then I start thinking about the future and how I want to live my life in my remaining years. Those thoughts seem to spring from some notion that I need to give back for all that I have received. I think about how I could use my mind and ability to write – to make a difference in our national politics. Maybe I could even write so powerfully as to convince a few people that wanting to ban semi-automatic weapons has absolutely nothing to do with wanting to take guns away from law abiding citizens who use them for hunting or the sport of target practice or who collect antique guns. (Oops, how did that editorial slip in??)

When I start thinking about all the things I could do I begin to feel dragged down. If I am honest with myself I know I am limited in the things I can do, and what I choose to do I need to plan well and be vigilant about energy and pain levels. I don’t feel like I have the energy to give as I would like – and that makes me sad. Really sad.

How can I be thankful when my life is limited and, because of my age and fibromyalgia, I know it is only down hill from here? Do we reach an age when we are no longer expected to give; when we can just take? When I taught about adulthood and aging, I discussed with students the theory of role reversal, the reversal of children taking care of aging parents. It was clear then – now that I feel it beginning to happen, not so much. Back then the emotional part was more theory than real. Now it is in-my-face real.

I still want to age gracefully, with joy and peace and love and laughter and stimulating activities. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I had decided to take each day as it came – finding joy in doing chores and fun activities (like making quilts). Being thankful each day for what I could do without thinking about what I used to be able to do or want to do in the future. Today. Joy. Thankfulness. Wow.

Then we brought the Christmas tree upstairs, the pre-lit one that we cut all the lights off last year because half weren’t working. I had a plan. I would sting the lights securely so I could leave them on. I started stringing the bottom third with colored lights in the center (JB wanted colored) and white on the ends of the branches (my choice). I did a little and then would do something else that allowed me to sit and rest. Then I did a little more. I was able to make the strings of lights end so I could start new ones on the middle section. I worked on the tree Monday and Tuesday. Took lights off on Wednesday because they weren’t ending at the top of the middle section.. Decided on Thursday (with tears of frustration) that we wouldn’t have a tree this year, but instead I started putting lights back on. Friday I bought two more strings and put them on. Friday I took those off because I had bought LED and they didn’t look right with rest of tree. They also weren’t long enough so JB went out to buy two longer strings. The lights still weren’t going on right so Friday night I took most of the lights off. Saturday I put lights back on, with a new plan of taking them off after Christmas. JB’s worked with me on the top third that gave me the energy to finish with the light stringing.

It is beautiful. JB and I agree that it is the most beautiful tree we have had in many years. But it took me a week to put lights on the tree and it wasn’t a graceful process. I cried and cussed and was surly. I gave up several times, lost sleep over it, and felt very little joy during the process. Not the way I want to live – but it isn’t my normal way of living.

During this same week I designed and bought fabric for a darling quilt for my new two-year-old great-grandson. I am so excited about it, and thankful that Kaden is a part of my life and that I can bring joy to my grandson and his new wife. And what about the tree? Yes, I wasn’t at all graceful but I kept going back, I kept doing as much as I could, I persevered and changed my plan as needed, and I “got er done.”

Maybe I don’t need to always be graceful. Maybe I need to take on challenges and fight my way through even if it isn’t good for my body and spirit. If most of my life is lived with joy and thankfulness, I think I can forgive myself for those moments (or weeks) when I’m not feeling it so much.