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The Third Act Organ Recital

Most Mondays, after my yoga class, I drop in for tea and conversation with my older sister and her husband. We haven’t lived close enough for regular visits since she graduated from high school in 1965. A year ago this month, they moved from Virginia to Washington and live twenty minutes from me. I envy those who have been close to their siblings their entire lives—perhaps in spite of physical distance—but there is no point in dwelling in that particular house, I can only live in this one. Time, now, is growing short. Onward.

I’m tempted to say we have little in common, which would not be untrue (though I wonder, if we all recognized we have humanity in common with every other person and went from there, could this be a better world?). Here’s what we undeniably do share, other than DNA: A childhood (the first act of life) and the fact of elderhood (the third act). It’s interesting that in this last act, recalling the first act and exploring our differing recall and experience is ongoing fascination. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle to piece it all together into something resembling a whole. (Someday, I suppose, it will be all we can remember.)

Last week, over tea, we had our bit of the requisite “organ recital.” I was telling her about the excruciating back pain I’d had the week before, what with hiking—and the seven hours in the car, which the three hour hike bisected—and rebuilding my meadow garden, with heavy lifting (e.g. bags of sand, bark, and soil), along with digging out hardened mole hills and laying down cardboard and landscape cloth between the raised beds. I worked through the pain, determined to finish the job before the rain returned for the next many days. In other words, I did not listen to my body and what it should not do that particular day. For twenty-four hours, I could barely walk, get up from the chair, or turn over in bed.

The interesting thing was my thoughts—as I am drawing my foot back to kick down the gate into my seventy-third year next month—went like this: “Well, this it it. I’m going to have chronic back pain from here out. Hard work is done, hiking is done, this is my forever now.” The next day, when it was much better after rest and an ibuprofen/acetaminophen regimen, I wondered had I known I would get quickly back to normal, might I have been more tolerant of the pain and inconvenience the previous day? Along the same lines, the tendinitis in my hand, which began more than a year ago, took much longer to get better. I was making my peace with it being something I would have to live with. I won’t say it’s 100% pain free, but I’m back to using two trekking poles and everything else I need hands for.

As we talked, I recalled having sciatica in 1980. It never occurred to me at 28 that it was my forever. It was just a “shit happens” thing. Now, everything feels like a potential crisis. That is what I least like about this time of life.

What I am most loving about the third act—so unlike the second act when we are often just trying to get through the days and sometimes looking forward to the far off future—is learning to enjoy this moment, this day, this sunrise, this rainstorm, this hike, this flower, this conversation. As I write this, I’m watching a dark-eyed junco on the deck rail. Is it questioning the empty feeder, or just enjoying a moment in a spot of sun on a dark day?

What I am wondering: what if I approach the set backs with the same kind of observation and interest? Oh, my back hurts today. How can I change my plan for the day to accommodate what is happening in this moment? Maybe I need not clean out the flower bed or power wash the patio, and instead just sit in the sun or take a nap—or both.

I am sensitive to the fact that many do have chronic pain and illness. My father did, both polymyositis and heart disease, along with the complicating effects of the treatments. It was brutal. If you are living with a chronic condition, I hope you have found what brings you joy in whatever your body is able to do.

How are you caring for your beautiful self on the good days and on the challenging ones? Let me know in the comment section. I would love to hear from you. [A note about commenting on a post: Click the subscribe drop down arrow at the top of the comment section and provide your information (it is private) to receive an email when someone replies to your comment. I, at least, will always reply!]

Mothering Rhymes with Smothering

When Mama tells me not to touch my mouth or eyes while I have a cold, I cut her off as she is about to tell me why. “Stop,” I say, holding up my hand, palm out, “just stop.” I don’t tell her to stop mothering me, I know she would say, “I am a mother, Gretchen, I can’t just stop.” And I know she believes the definition of mother is “Never, never stop instructing.” I don’t want to get into that conversation with her. She’s 98, she is not going to change. But I do need to protect myself.

I know there are those whose mothers are no longer with them who would give anything to be told to button their coat, and I get that. Perhaps I will eat my words when that day comes. But while there are many things I will miss about my mother when she is gone forever, I don’t think constant instruction will be one of them, even in a symbolic way.

Instruction has always been the part of mothering she has felt most confident in. I think she hasn’t quite known how to interact with her competent daughters, and so she clings to what she knows. I don’t think she realizes when she does it to me, the effect is that I feel cut down. It didn’t bother me when I lived 2500 miles away and heard it over the phone line. I was living my own life, and doing it quite well. I could brush off her instructions on how I “should” be doing whatever. And, of course, she didn’t really know I was washing dishes without using a dishpan. And if I were Michelle Obama living with my mother in a big white house, doing my competent part to keep the most powerful country in the world running smoothly, and my mother told me to cover my arms or I might attract unwanted attention, I would probably be able to blow it off and remain firmly in control of my grown up status.

But living in her house, doing pretty much everything wrong; and not being a wage earner in a job where I feel like I am in control and appreciated, it’s hard not to feel twelve. So when she tells me to pull the chairs out from the dining room table when I’m vacuuming, I tell her that I know how to vacuum. And when she suggests my coat is not warm enough, that I will catch cold, I tell her that colds are caused by cold germs, not cold weather (or wet hair). I also tell her I know that every mother from the 1950s believed that, she was not alone. (Also, it is sixty degrees, or I would have had a different coat on.)

Rebecca had dinner with her the other night and the conversation turned to the fact that Mama used to take the train to Seattle to go to the eye doctor, and she had to take a cab or the bus from King Street station to the clinic. Rebecca asked her if it ever amazed her that she did all of that by herself, if she was proud of herself. “Well,” she said, “I’ve always taken care of myself.”

“So,” Rebecca said, “you were independent and capable of taking care of things. Why don’t you believe that your daughters are capable in the same way? We do come from you, you know!” She said one never lets go of being a mother, and you had to be a mother to understand. (Rebecca is not a mother, so ouch to that.)

Rebecca knew it was pointless to suggest a mother could also be proud of what her children have done and become, and be proud of instilling in them a sense of confidence and ability. Mama doesn’t know how to be proud of herself, and that makes it hard to take any credit for her daughters’ accomplishments.

I used to feel like a grown up, but these days I think I won’t again until I am the oldest generation in the family. By then, perhaps, my own children will be ready to be the oldest generation. And will tell me what to do and how to do it.

The Labyrinth

“I begin to see our connected lives like the intricate path of a labyrinth. My mother is spiraling inward toward the center,
the still point of the turning world. . . . I am following the outward way toward assuming the reins of care,
trying not to step over the bounds of the path in front of me.”

(Mother Lode, p. 65)

One of my first getaways in 2012, two months after my cross-country move to begin my care-partnering sojourn with my mother, was a one-day writing-in-nature workshop at the Whidbey Institute on Washington’s Whidbey Island. It was there I met Christina Baldwin, who would become my friend and writing mentor. Attending that workshop—discovered quite by chance and registered for on a whim—changed the trajectory of my life, ultimately leading to becoming a published author.

I walked the Institute’s Chartres labyrinth for the first time that autumn Saturday. As I made the eleven circuits to the center and back out, I didn’t yet see it as the metaphor for my life it would become. Returning over the years, both to Christina’s writing retreats and to the labyrinth, I began to recognize the increasingly familiar pattern my mother and I were in, she circling toward the center and her eventual death, I winding back out toward a resumption of my life that had felt on hold. The predictably unpredictable labyrinth path—as we passed near to each other and then more distanced—became a trope, or theme, winding through my memoir.

When I walked the labyrinth again last week, I realized the path is really a metaphor for all of life. It looks deceptively ordered from some points, chaotic from others, but it’s only when focusing only what is just ahead that way opens up. You can, of course, step over the dividers, taking a short-cut. When you do, however, it isn’t clear which direction leads to the center and which to the exit. You really just have to stay the path and move headlong into whatever presents itself.

I noticed (in retrospect) that on the hairpin turns, my mind and my body came back to attention to the path. I looked at my feet and shortened my stride, taking care not to step over or on a stone. In the gentle curves of the circuits, though, I returned to noticing the bee on the daisy, the smell of the air, the singing birds. It was then I could let my mind wander to what has been, what is, what might be. Both kinds of attention have always been present in my life, though it can seem—especially in times of crisis—it’s all one and never the other.

Leaving the labyrinth, I walked to the apple tree garden, remembering sitting in it at the workshop to do a writing assignment. The sprinkler was running this visit, so I didn’t go in, but I remembered—per the assignment—I had a conversation with the apple tree. My essay was focused on two trees, a young one and an old one. Now the young one is becoming the elder, just as I am in my mother’s absence.

I visited the big fenced garden next. It and the one at Aldermarsh—site of my first week-long writing retreat two months later—were the inspirations for my own meadow garden. I am quite sure in 2012 it was a working kitchen garden, with an eagle-protected chicken run around it. The run is gone now, and the garden has gone wild with meandering paths.Finding an old photograph of the front yard of my mother’s house, I remembered there used to be roses along the driveway curb, now there are azaleas. She was a pantser gardener like me. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that. Her gardens morphed from this to that, as happens when pantsers create. I’ve been feeling like I have let her down, unable to keep the grounds around the house looking as they did under her care. I’ve been thinking about starting over in the front of the house, sowing wildflowers and letting it do what it will. It may or may not happen. Also, I’m not sure how that will be different from now. Every year something comes up that wasn’t there before and something that was present is gone. This year it’s dotted loosestrife I’ve not seen before. Just one stalk. Last year the previously prolific campanula bellflower was gone, this year there’s one stalk. Wild field daisies have joined the planted Shasta daisies (not yet blooming).

As I wander through the former kitchen garden at the Institute, I wonder what discussions were had to let it be what it wanted to be. I wonder if I have the courage to let my meadow—the former horse pasture—return to nature, as one of my sisters suggested some time ago. The bees would love it, and so would my wallet. There is probably an art to letting a long-mowed meadow revert to natural, and without becoming the tangle of blackberry vines—both native and not—that it would want to be. Maybe I’ll begin with a test plot, taking a lesson from the labyrinth: don’t look too far ahead, start with what’s right in front of you.

Back at home, looking for a photo of the kitchen garden in 2012—which I did not find—I found the conversation with the apple tree on my old blog. The insight is remarkably similar to the one here about the labyrinth. There is nothing new, I guess, just a lot of rediscovery. You can read that post here.

We don’t always see where way will take us to get from here to there. I thought my married-with-children life was all set when I met my future husband fifty years ago. Instead, I have walked an eleven circuit labyrinth, one that brought me back to the place I started. Life is not a straight line, but takes unforeseen turns. One way or another, it always comes back to the beginning point. The 107th anniversary of my mother’s birth is today, my 71st is next week. I don’t know if I will have three decades left as she did, but I’m excited to see what is around the next curve. I think I won’t have expectations beyond that.

“You will take it as it comes, and figure it out as you go. That is what you have done all your life, and it has always worked out. . . .
It is what we all must do. It is the only way there is.”

—Writing workshop, 2012 

Climb Every Mountain

Sunday had all the appearances of being a socked-in miserable rainy day; the kind I longed for all the years I lived in the southeast but rarely got. Oh, it might start out looking hopeful, but then the sun would break through and ruin it. I would feel like I had to go for a walk or work in the garden or something, and there would go the day of self-indulgence.

On Sunday, I decided early on—before the day began—I was going to stay upstairs in Mama’s space all day. After I cooked us brunch, I would light candles in the fireplace and pretend it was a fire; and dress lightly enough that I could sit under an afghan in the too-warm house and read until time for figure skating. Then I would pop corn, knit, watch TV.  When that was over, I would resume reading and probably nap. I haven’t had this favorite kind of day in the 18 months since I moved here. I was about to find out why.

I made biscuits for brunch. Mama was excited. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate a biscuit. “There was a country store that your daddy and I used to stop at on our way to hike in the Smokies and get sausage biscuits for our lunch.” “Did you like them?” I asked. I can’t quite picture my mother eating sausage biscuits for some reason. “They made a delicious cold lunch,” she said.

While Mama cleaned up the kitchen, I lit the candles and sat on the sofa under the afghan with my book. From there my perfect day went south.

I love to watch figure skating. Always have. In high school, I switched out the poster on my bedroom wall of Julie Andrews spinning in an alpine meadow in favor of Peggy Fleming spinning on Olympic ice. In the winter, I was glued to Wide World of Sports. On Saturday, Mama had enjoyed watching the competition with me until I had to go out. On Sunday, she came in and sat down in the recliner next to the sofa, asking if couples would be skating. No. Within seconds her body slumped and her mouth fell open; she snored three feet from my head through the first group of the men’s event. She woke as the second group was warming up and moved to the swivel chair in front of the television. Between each skater she swiveled to face me, blocking the TV so I couldn’t see the scores, and asking me questions during the commentary: “Did you think he was as good as the last one?” “Did he make any mistakes?” “What was the matter with that jump?” “Are the couples going to skate?” “Do they just skate in one corner of the rink?” “Was his music different?” “He looked embarrassed, was he?” (That last regarding the gold medalist overcome with emotion after his performance.) I tried to answer. She couldn’t hear me. I repeated it louder. Then a follow-up question.

Just as it ended, and I was praying she would eat some lunch then take a nap, the sweet neighbor who often comes to visit on Sunday afternoons called. When Audrey presumably asked how she was, Mama told her she was lazy. This is her response when she hasn’t accomplished whatever she thinks she should be accomplishing, which is never. I’m so glad I didn’t absorb her belief that self-care is the equivalent of laziness. What a burden. Jo Ann tells the childhood memory of our mother calling from the kitchen to ask what she was doing. “I’m in the bathroom,” Jo Ann would call back; because if she said she was reading she would be told to come and do some chore. I  remember Mama saying rather snappishly that she didn’t have time to read the newspaper, or a magazine. I never saw her reading a book.

Audrey is coming at 4:00, the time I figured Mama would be napping and I could inhale the solitude. Maybe she will take an early nap if I help her get something to eat. She says she’s not hungry. She moves into activity mode; striving, I guess, to make up for two hours of laziness. She brings the calendar to me. “Is February first really a Saturday? I can’t work out how that is.” She wants me to prove it mathematically; that is, on my fingers. Then she wants me to go with her to the basement freezer to tell her what soup is there; apparently the list on the refrigerator is insufficient. She doesn’t believe me that there is soup in the upstairs freezer. I let it go and take a spinach and a pea up to add to the collection falling out when the freezer door is opened. I also take up the five containers of celery soup that she had me take downstairs Friday after telling me it wasn’t good. She is going to throw them away. Yes! Later I find them crammed into the upstairs freezer. She waters the house plants and makes two phone calls. I give up and go downstairs to my cave, my stomach clenched, feeling like I’ve been skating up a moving glacier into thin air.

Finally I hear the microwave ding. I guess she has warmed some soup. Audrey comes. No nap; no silence. I start dinner and Mama lies down at 5:45, just as Rebecca arrives for supper. While pizza dough rises, I write the first draft of this post. As I finish, I hit some key and the whole thing goes poof. No recovery options.

That was my mountain today. Meanwhile, my writer friend Taline just scaled Mt. Kilamanjaro.

Pots du Créme au Chocolat

The Story:

Over my adult lifetime, my mother frequently expressed her failure as a mother because she fed her babies Gerber’s chocolate pudding, getting her daughters started early on sugar. They were different times, I tell her, can’t know what you didn’t know. And besides I have no chocolate love regrets. (Does early exposure prevent allergies? I would hate to be allergic to chocolate.) Jell-O chocolate pudding, the kind you stir constantly on the stove, not the instant variety, was one of the few cooking experiences I remember from childhood. Now my tastes are more sophisticated, and this chocolate “pudding” recipe is blue ribbon. And so easy. I hope I made it for my mother, I don’t remember. She did love chocolate!

The Recipe:

Makes six servings

Ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream (or whole milk, if you’re on a diet, haha)
6 oz dark sweet chocolate (I use 60% Ghiradelli), cut into small pieces
⅓ cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla (or Grand Marnier, or rum, or Kahlúa)
Chocolate curls

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350º. In a heavy saucepan combine cream and chocolate and cook over medium heat stirring until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Whisk in sugar, yolks (one at a time), and vanilla. Strain (if you want, I don’t) the custard into 6 one-half cup ramekins and place in a baking pan. Add hot water to the pan to reach halfway up the side to create a water bath. Bake 25 minutes or until top is set. Remove from pan and let cool. Garnish with chocolate curls (whipped cream opt). Pure deliciousness! Even better after refrigerating.

While I Made Risotto: A Partly True Braided Story

Written December 2013, when my mother was 97 years old. Not knowing what to write at a writing retreat, a suggestion was made by the teacher to write (i.e. make up) the end of the story. It’s based on a very real feeling I had while Mama napped as I made risotto one day, wondering why she wasn’t getting up as dinner time approached. Much is fact, but not her age at the time of writing or of our walk in the woods. I fast forwarded a couple of years, because I wasn’t ready for her to go, but didn’t want it to be too long. She departed her beloved earth in 2018 at age 102.

It’s Thursday, the day Mama’s paid care partner doesn’t come. We go for an excruciatingly slow walk in the morning—her walking stick in one of her hands, her other in mine as I walk ahead of her on the trail through the woods by our home. For so many years she walked faster than I did on pavement. I raced to keep up with her when we were shopping, even as an adult. But she never could be hurried in the woods. She stopped to examine every plant and identify it for my sisters and me, and later her grandchildren: trillium, bunchberry, false Solomon seal, spring beauty, ocean spray. I didn’t care what they were, I just wanted to get to the destination. “Can we keep going?” I would whine. At 99 now, she has lost her vision to glaucoma and macular degeneration. She hasn’t coped well with her fading vision in the past years, constantly obsessing over it, and I am surprised I persuaded her to walk in the woods with me. We continue the awkward shuffle along the trail through the moss-laden trees, branches dripping with goat’s beard lichen. I tell her where every root is, every step onto uneven ground. It demands my undivided attention.

The vegetable broth warms on the stove while I dice mushrooms and mince shallots and carrots.

The air smells damp green. Last year’s dry sword fern fronds rustle in the breeze above the emerging fiddleheads. A barred owl up late sits silently watching from a Douglas fir branch above us. We walk in the Natural Area on the hill where we live that my parents were pivotal in saving from future logging. It is seventy-three acres of trees, trails, and native plants—along with the invasive non-native English ivy and holly—owned by the City and preserved, now, in perpetuity. Outside of her daughters, it is my mother’s finest achievement—her legacy.

I warm the olive oil in a large skillet and stir in the mushrooms.
When they are soft, I remove them from the pan and set them aside.

It’s spring, Mama’s favorite season of new life and hope. I love equally, or more, the turning inward time of autumn, and have never understood why she doesn’t see its beauty. She is a glass-half-empty person. She says autumn is a harbinger of winter, the season of her discontent. Today, though, she wants to know if the trillium are blooming. She knows all the spots where they should be. She asks if we are at the fork in the trail where our path meets the neighbor’s at the maple tree with eight trunks. “Are there trillium under the tree?” she asks. I tell her where each patch is and if they are newborn white, middle-aged pink, or dying purple. I tell her when we get to the vine maple that has arched, tunnel-like, over the trail probably since long before we moved here in 1960. It’s just beginning to turn spring green. She tells me, as she does each time we walk, “When I walked Rebecca through here to catch the school bus she would say, ‘Let go of my hand, Mommy, so I can skip through my fairy land.’” Rebecca tells me that wasn’t where the fairy land was, but I don’t correct her. Just beyond the bower is where the puncheon road used to be. The pieces of wood at intervals across a low spot kept the cows that were driven through here to their summer grazing home over the hill at the turn of the last century from sinking into mud. It was still visible when we moved to the hill 55 years ago, but gone now.

I add more olive oil to the pan and stir in the shallots and carrots, cooking them soft, as Mama’s delicate stomach requires.

We make it all the way to where the path meets what used to be a dirt lane from the reservoir down to the old Girl Scout day camp where Mama, a leader, did nature activities with generations of Scouts. I take her to the marble marker that declares the spot overlooking town as “Staebler Point, Leaders in Preservation.” It looks like a grave marker. She slowly bends down to brush the dead leaves of winter off the slab with her gloved hand, balancing herself with her other hand on my arm so she doesn’t topple over. She is so slight, I barely feel her weight. We rest for a while on the log, drinking from our water bottles as the weak sun warms our faces. She wants to know how much ivy there is and wonders if the volunteers have been in lately to pull it down.

When we get back to the house she exclaims, as she has every time we have walked there in the almost four years since I returned home, “I never thought I would be able to go in there again!” I wonder, as I do each time, if this is the last time. I wish I had taken her more often before she lost so much of her sight.

I add the Arborio rice and stir until it is coated with oil and turns pale gold. I pour in white wine; it sizzles as it deglazes the pan.
The dry rice quickly drinks up the liquid and the aroma begins to waft into the air.

For the past two years, Mama has spent increasingly more time sleeping—or resting as she says; she still rarely admits to being asleep. She nearly nods off at the table after her lunch, which she still prepares herself, with help now from her morning care partner. The effort is exhausting and by the time she eats she is too tired to get up from the table and lie down, sometimes staying for half an hour or more. If she takes a short nap, she moves from bed to recliner and sleeps there until time for dinner. It is unusual for her still to be in bed when I start the evening meal, but not surprising after the day’s fresh air and exercise.

I reduce the heat and add a half cup of broth to the rice.
I never made risotto for myself. I had never heard of it when I had a family.
When I came here there was a box of mix in the kitchen drawer.
It reminded me of a friend’s essay in the church newsletter one year during Lent, about making risotto from scratch.
It sounded like too much trouble for one person; too self-indulgent maybe.
But now I make it for Mama, and enjoy a meditative state while I stir.

I am in awe of Mama’s courage in taking care of herself and this home and property for the 20 years since my father died. I never saw her as a capable person. I was wrong. We are alike, she and I. I see that now suddenly. If there is someone in our life who believes themselves to be the stronger one, we give our power over to them. Left to our own survival, we step up. This time, though, she has not let go. She has clung tenaciously to her independence and control these years since I came to live with her. She doesn’t see me as more capable. I am her child. When I am exasperated by her insistence on doing it herself and her way when I could have done it more efficiently, she tells me, “Someday you will understand, Gretchen.”

Add more broth. Stir until the liquid is absorbed. Add broth. Stir.

I briefly wonder about Mama, perhaps I should wake her. She doesn’t like to spend so much time sleeping. She used to get up in time for the local news on TV, but she can no longer hear it. And even when she could a bit, she was only interested in the weather forecast. As her vision went into rapid decline, she became a master with the mute function on the remote control, turning the volume on every few moments to see if it was time for the weather and then back off. It drove me half mad. But she doesn’t even bother with that anymore. She just asks me, and I never know. I always say, “It will probably be foggy in the morning, or maybe just cloudy, and it might drizzle. In the afternoon, the sun might come out. Or not.” I am usually right. Anyway, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to get her up. Besides, I am making risotto.

Risotto can’t be hurried. It demands undivided attention.
I pair it with something that can be put in the oven to take care of itself so I don’t have to multitask.
It gives me license to say, “Don’t bother me now, I’m making risotto.”
I wish I had made it when my children were small, I could have used the break.

I’m getting a little concerned about Mama now. She can’t hear me in the kitchen, even though the stove is on the other side of the wall from the head of her bed. Sometimes she says she can hear me, but I don’t believe her. She also insists she hears geese in the mornings—before she puts her hearing aid in—when I don’t hear them even through my bedroom window, which is always open to stave off the stifling heat of the thermostat turned up too high because Mama is always cold. Perhaps she remembers the mournful honking as they fly in ragged formation up the valley, and hears them in her imagination; maybe it’s the current manifestation of her tinnitus. Smell is her one of her most undiminished senses, though—second only to taste, she can apparently taste the difference between brands of margarine. She should be smelling dinner cooking. The risotto can’t be left right now. I dismiss my curiosity.

Mama can’t eat al dente rice, the way I prefer it, the way the recipe suggests.
I no longer even think about the sacrifice of my desires, though, or bother to prepare it two ways.
I add more liquid.

Why isn’t she getting up?

Finally the rice is soft enough. I stir in the vegetables, butter, and a little Parmesan—
if Mama knows there is cheese in it, she won’t eat it.
I sprinkle it with sea salt and grind some pepper over it.
I taste it one more time. Food of the goddess.
I put the lid on the pot and move it off the burner.

I walk down the hall and gently push open the door to Mama’s room. The heat knocks me back, as it always does. It’s a small room for a master bedroom and the bumped up auxiliary baseboard heat keeps the air heavy. I don’t know how she breathes. The heat intensifies the smell redolent of old people: cleaning that isn’t done often enough because she refuses to hire a cleaning person, dander, the Nivea cream she became partial to after its use in the hospital caused her to believe it was better than the Noxzema and Pacquins that always sat on her bathroom counter during my childhood, Depends in the bathroom wastebasket, old shoes and long unworn clothes in the closet, old draperies covering windows only opened in August.

I can barely distinguish her tiny body under the purple and gold chevron afghan her mother crocheted years before my birth. Her hair—like her mother’s and like mine, white since we were in our 30s—is flattened to her head on the pillow. I move closer. I flash back to my little girl self in the middle of the night after a nightmare. I would tiptoe the short distance between the bedroom I shared with my little sister and my parents’ room and stand at her side of the bed—always on the right, perhaps because that’s the side whatever baby’s crib was on in the house where we were all born—loathe to wake her, willing her to sense my presence. Usually she did, as mothers do; but sometimes I had to touch her arm, lightly as a feather. Then she would come immediately awake and hold up the covers and I would crawl in beside her. She would put her arms around me and I was safe again.

There is no telltale grunt I have grown accustomed to as she randomly switches from nose to mouth breathing as she inhales. I watch the covers: there is no subtle rise and fall of her emaciated chest. When I lightly put my hand on her arm, she doesn’t startle and say in sleep-thickened speech, “I didn’t mean to stay in bed so long,” as she usually does when I have to wake her. I lift the afghan and slip in beside her on Daddy’s side of the bed that she never took over when he died unexpectedly in the hospital. I slide my arm under her bony shoulders, and turn her toward me, knowing the motion can no longer cause pain to her brittle bones and her spine, crooked from severe scoliosis. I hold her cooling body, still smelling of the rich earthiness of her beloved woods from our morning walk, against my warm one.

Tears fill my eyes. I thought I was ready. I am not ready.

“Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight . . . 
Lay thee down now and rest, 
May thy slumber be blessed.”

It was a peaceful departure. While I made risotto.

_________________

To read the eulogy I wrote for my mother, “What My Mother Gave Me.

For the risotto recipe, “Risotto with Mushrooms.”

Siblings Caring for Parents—or Not

What is your sibling story? Do they participate or not? If so, what role do they take? Have you done anything to bring reluctant ones around? How do you cope? Send your story on the contact page here.

 

The oldest of four daughters, I was on disability and living in a house with my mother and one other sister, who worked full time. A second sister lived next door—she also worked full time. As my mother displayed increasing signs of dementia, it fell to me to convince her to get evaluated—something she fought every step of the way. My sisters all turned a blind eye—they saw nothing wrong with mom, since they were not home much. In my mother’s younger days, she had been an actress, and somehow maintained that skill at every doctor appointment, charming and fooling the doctors for way too long, until her dementia progressed, then after a few outbursts in doctors’ offices, they could finally see the state she was in. Of course, even though I was taking her to all these appointments, and taking care of her at home, she resented me and constantly raged at me. Eventually she had to enter a nursing home, when her behavior became unsafe at home.

I read many books on dementia + attended a support group for caregivers-it helped.

Cynthia C.

 

My sister gifted me your book, Mother Lode, this Christmas! When our house was finally quiet, Christmas “packed away,” I picked your book up, and could hardly put it down. I cried and laughed, hurt and rejoiced in your journey with your mother as it mirrors so much the struggles we are having with our mother (and father to some extent). I retired over 2 years ago and moved closer to my sister to help care for our “old-old” parents. They lived with me in our home across the street from my sister, until last April, when it was time for Assisted Living (our mother’s decision). They are 92 and 94, both with increasing dementia.

Your story gives me hope.
Sarah R.

 

A friend gave me your book as I have been taking care of my 94 year old mother for years. The stories about your mother are so familiar. Sadly I don’t have a “Rebecca” as my three siblings do not participate. It is endless and exhausting. Your book gives me comfort, knowing I’m not the only one. Thanks for all you did for your mother and for sharing the experience to connect to the rest of us.

Very best, Susannah H.

 

The decision to make sure Dad lived in his own home until the end was an easy decision for my siblings as none of them intended to take care of him. One sister lived four hours away and far from retirement in a job she had held for almost 30 years. Second sister lived in Florida. Brother lived across the field from my parents but was not emotionally mature enough or financially able to provide any help (and offered none). I stepped up because I was retired and financially secure. Dad’s home would had to have been sold in order for him to afford living in any type of memory care (with Alzheimer’s). He also had prostate cancer and was being treated for both that condition and dementia, high blood pressure. The home was not ready for sale and my dad was cognizant and able to take care of his personal needs in the beginning. It would have been heartbreaking and met with considerable resistance to sell the place and place him in care. My siblings were very willing to let me take charge and live with dad as long as their inheritance was not touched. It became clear it was an important factor as I asked them about paid care for dad. None of them were willing (or able) to bear those costs, but didn’t want to give up their “stake” in the estate. It was easier for me to live with him full-time.

Sonya S.

Conversations with Dementia: The Leaky Kitchen Sink

The sink is leaking. I stopped Michelle from pointing it out to Mama this morning just as she opened her mouth to repeat what Mama, thank God, didn’t hear the first time. After dinner, Rebecca and I notice there is water puddling in the cupboard under the sink. While Mama gets ready for bed, Rebecca and I clean up it up and take the linoleum liner out to the deck so the cupboard can dry. Mama comes in, and we hustle to get it back together so she won’t notice, knowing she will obsess over it and she has already had an upsetting day. But we inadvertently leave a basket of cleaning supplies in the sink and it’s too late to move it without being obvious. We aren’t worried, she is just heating her rice bags in the microwave and has no reason to walk over to the sink. She walks over to the sink. “Damn it,” I breathe. Rebecca tells her it is leaking a little, but we are taking care of it.

“You don’t know what needs to be done,” Mama snaps, “turn off the dishwasher!”

It is clearly the sink faucet that is leaking, but Rebecca obliges.

Rebecca says she will call her plumber. She tells Mama he will probably call in the morning. She goes home and I go downstairs.

I return upstairs when I hear Mama in the kitchen. Wearing her nightgown and walking shoes, she has her head under the sink peering around with a flashlight.

“You didn’t put the bucket in the right place,” she says.

“We put it the only place it could go and still catch the drip, which it is doing,” I say.

“And the pipe is wet,” she says.

“Yes, that’s why there is a bucket.”

“We should turn off the water,” she says.

“It’s just a slow drip,” I say. “It will be fine.”

“And the bottom of the cabinet needs to dry.”

“That’s why the linoleum is outside and the cupboard doors are open.” I tell her the plumber called and will come on Monday. “He said we did everything right. It’s not an emergency, the bucket will catch the drip until he comes.”

“I thought he was going to call tomorrow,” she says.

Tomorrow I’m going hiking.

Worrying in a Snowstorm

It snowed last night and it’s floating lightly down still. I feel enveloped in beauty and solitude. I haven’t seen Mama since Friday and now it’s Wednesday. I was sick Saturday and I didn’t want to expose her on my way to Seattle for childcare on Sunday. She’s expecting me today and I have no way to let her know I’m not going to venture down the hill. We do need to get her a phone; I’m sure she feels isolated.

I go for a walk in the woods leaving virgin footprints on the trails, but for the deer and rabbit tracks. It’s a wonderland in black and white. In mid-afternoon, though, the weak sun breaks out, melting the sidewalk and steps to the carport; and, according to the forecast—which is not necessarily trustworthy, since it missed the snow event entirely—the temperature is to be above freezing for a little while. I decide to try driving down the hill just before early dinner at the Manor when Mama will be up from her nap.

Rebecca checks in to see if I have been yet. I tell her I’m going shortly. She texts again. Mama has gotten an aide to call Rebecca on her cell phone so Mama could talk to her. She’s “worried sick because no one has come,” Rebecca texts, adding an eye-roll emoji.

Skidding in the driveway, I get to the road. It is not clear, of course. It may not melt for days at the curve under the trees with the temperature in the twenties at night. I have all-wheel drive, but my car is old.  This was a bad idea. When it comes to driving in snow, I’m a worrier too.

When I reach Mama’s room, she practically falls into my arms.

“I was so worried!” she exclaims.

“That’s why I was staying home,” I say. “I thought you would understand I didn’t want to come down the hill in the snow.”

“Have you been home?” she asks.

“All day,” I say. “But you told Rebecca you were ‘worried sick’ so I decided I would venture out. And I wanted to see you,” I add belatedly.

“But I thought you were coming back from Seattle today.”

“I came back yesterday, Tuesday, like always. I left early, in fact, because of the forecast.”

“I didn’t know that,” she sighs.

Rebecca tells me later she told Mama yesterday I would be home last night, but Mama forgot. When Rebecca told her I was “on my way,” she thought she meant from Seattle, so she hadn’t stopped frantically worrying even then.

And she had thought Rebecca was going to the dentist at eight o’clock, twenty minutes away on two-lane roads; an appointment Rebecca canceled. “I had visions of you both stranded on the road, sitting in your cars freezing!” she says.

“You only have to remember one thing,” I say, knowing she won’t: “neither of us will drive out of town in snow and ice.”

I can’t keep her from worrying, she’s been doing it her whole life. But dementia exacerbates it and I will drive myself crazy trying not to be the cause of it. I don’t know if a phone in her room will help or not. I can think of a dozen pitfalls: she won’t hear it ring, she won’t take a nap for fear of missing a call, she’ll fall hurrying to get to it, she won’t remember how to use it, she won’t be able to hear, she’ll misunderstand, she won’t remember, . . . I don’t know what to do. I guess what we’ve always done, my father too: let her worry. It makes my stomach hurt.

Generational Caregiving

I have just read a wonderful book titled Mother Lode – Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver by Gretchen Staebler and I want to tell you about it.

I have been in her shoes with both my mom and dad, so I can relate to many of the things she went through. Although my parents did not have dementia, they were a challenge to care for at times. My mom died much too young at age 74 after having a stroke that paralyzed her on one side. Although at that time my dad was her primary caregiver, at age 77, I was there every day to help take care of her and help him.

My dad was another story. He had always been very independent all his life. He started having problems at about age 96, about the age Gretchen was starting her journey with her mom. I seemed to have the same “love/hate” relationship with my dad as Gretchen did with her mom at times. It was good to read that I was not alone in that feeling. It validated how I felt. My dad passed away peacefully at age 99.

I think all the insights and experiences Gretchen had and her way with words will be a comfort to all who read her book.

My husband and I are on the receiving end of the caregiving journey, where we need some care ourselves. We have 2 daughters and a son in that position now who are reading Gretchen’s book to help them navigate this journey. We are still able to do most things ourselves so far but both being in our mid-80s, there is much we are not able to do. Our health is hit and miss, so that is a challenge also.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book and hope you also will find it very helpful if you find yourself in this position. It is said that 1 in 5 people [are caring for an adult family member], so you see you are not alone.

—Beth Nygren, 85