Baby Steps

The last few months have been full of turmoil. I didn’t realize until recently that I was carrying the emotional load for two – for me and for what I imagined Mom was feeling. 

I didn’t realize how lonely and empty our house would feel without Mom living here. 

I didn’t realize how much I would miss, or would long for, the tender moments, with the not so tender moments easily fading from memory. 

I didn’t realize how tormented I would feel when I visited Mom, and things were better, and I wondered if they could have been better if she were still at home. 

I didn’t realize the heartbreak I would feel each time I left her new residence and Mom asked if she could come home with me. 

I didn’t realize that minutes after I left, Mom likely didn’t remember I had been there. 

I also didn’t realize that the sadness and guilt I felt upon arrival and seeing her sitting and staring into space is likely not shared by her. That her resting and having less stimulation is a form of cognitive reserve, a way for her body and mind to store up energy and serotonin so that our visits are lovely and not fraught with violence. Just because it causes me guilt, doesn’t mean it’s causing her sadness or uncomfortableness.

I look back at my writings and talk to close friends who remind me of the agony of our existence at the beginning of the year. The screaming, the sobbing, the hitting, the yelling, the throwing objects, her insistence Dad was alive and had left her. There were also many precious moments; however, I never knew what I was in store for, and mood swings were swift and often. 

I compare that to our visits now. Every visit is lovely. Simply lovely. I say hello to her and it takes her a couple of beats to recognize me. A smile spreads across her face, and she exclaims, “You came!” or “My baby!” Followed by a tight hug that neither of us wants to release. 

She associates my arrival with leaving her residence. She asks, “Where are we going today?” It’s always the same, and I’m happy to repeat myself. “Would you like to go for a walk in the park?” “Oh, yes!” She exclaims, “I would really like that.”

After we do our lap at the park, which is becoming slower and shorter, I ask her if she’d like to get ice cream. “Oh, yes!” I order her a small cup of cookies and cream, and I’m well on my way to sampling each of the flavors at the Mexican paleteria: Ganzito, cafe, coco, mango, limon, and fruits I’m just now learning.

On the way home, we stop at Ingles supermarket. She likes to push the cart, very slowly, fondly picking up packages and handling them oh so carefully. Occasionally she’ll ask if she can have something, and I always say yes. Old age is not a time for boundaries. We generally get a package of Chips Ahoy and a package of almonds and a bouquet of a dozen red roses. Once home, she carefully takes the roses out of the bag, slowly trims each stem, and places them in a vase that I’ve filled with water. She enjoys the act of trimming and arranging, and seems surprised when she turns around and sees me there. 

We crawl onto her bed and watch the Hallmark channel for an hour or so. We sit beside each other, holding hands. Sometimes she’ll lay down, insisting I keep the tv on. Sometimes I’ll bring a book and she’ll “read” her paper (sometimes right side up, sometimes upside down). Sometimes she’ll ask me to give her a manicure (but never with colored polish). Sometimes she’ll ask me to do her hair (I love French braiding it and twisting it about).

Every visit is peaceful. There are no outbursts, no violence, no yelling. Yes, she’s on more medication, and she seems content. 

I’m learning to enjoy each visit for just that. A lovely day together. And I refrain from wondering if I made the right decision. Wondering if we could have this peaceful existence in the home we shared. Wondering if I could have eventually kept her safe at home. When I get ready to leave, she asks me if she can come with me. I tell her, “Not today.” She shrugs her shoulders, casts a glance downwards, and says “Okay.” I’m sure that my guilt over not bringing her “home” persists much longer than her accepting my answer and moving on. 

Mom lives in the present. She’s not fretting about the past or debating over the future. I’ve been doing that for both of us, and with the help of an amazing grief counselor, I am learning not to. Baby steps. 

Me and Mom at the park – living in the moment.

Old Crow Medicine Show

2008. The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA. Old Crow Medicine Show. An amazing concert at one of my favorite venues.

2022. Salvage Station, Asheville, NC. Old Crow Medicine Show. Holy wow. This is how this band needs to be seen and heard. On a huge outdoor stage, on a beautiful summer night, watching the sky turn from clear to dusky blue to midnight black, a half moon rising over the river. Enough stage space for hijinks to abound. Enough audience space for singing and smiling and dancing. So grateful for a wonderful night.

Old Crow Medicine Show at The Salvage Station

June

June is fireflies. 

June is chirping crickets.

June is rocking slowly on the front porch.

June is watching dusk transform to evening to pitch black night. 

June is magic.

April Showers

So many questions, usually answered with tears.

  • Did I make the right decision?
  • Did I make the wrong decision?
  • Did I act too hastily?
  • Should I have been more patient?
  • Was it a mistake to move in together for a year and a half? Did that make this current move even harder on her?
  • Will Mom ever believe that her current living situation is her home?
  • Will she ever forgive me for moving her “into an old folks’ home”?
  • Will we ever have a visit where it doesn’t end with her begging me to take her home, crying, promising that she’ll be good, and me trying to hold back sobs until I exit the building?
  • Am I seeing my future?

There are moments she seems so lucid, when she tells me she is *not* going to continue living where she is. And there are moments when she cannot string words together in a coherent thought. And most heartbreaking, the frequent moments when she asks me if we can go look for Dad, because she hasn’t seen him for a while, and she’s worried about him. And then she’s angry, so angry, that he’s deserted her. There are no words to comfort her.

Last year, I bought this larger house so that she could surround herself with her furniture, her things, hoping that would make her feel more comfortable. And now those things, those artifacts from her and Dad’s life, mock me when I walk in the door, reminding me that I quickly lost one person I cared for so deeply, and am now slowly losing another.

There are days I want to give it all away, not have the visual reminders. And other days I regret the hastily discarded things after Dad’s death. I’ve been cautioned not to make any major decisions right now, to give myself time to feel the feels and let emotions run their course. More than May flowers, I hope all of these April showers bring some sense of peace when I ponder these questions.

Buying All The Things…

I generally avoid taking Mom to stores in person. There’s the whole COVID thing, but even more importantly, it generally ends in tantrums and fits, which I haven’t figured out how to handle. And this weekend, she wore me down. She was incessant. “Why can’t we buy something?” “Let’s go to the places where they sell things.” “Can we do the thing where we get all the things?”

I needed a dryer clamp to re-attach the vent to the dryer. “Would you like to come to Ace Hardware with me, Mom?” “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed excitedly. She dutifully carried the shopping basket as I browsed dryer clamps. She was intoxicated by the selection of all the things. She ran her hand gingerly over the vents, and pipes, and tapes, mesmerized. After selecting the proper clamp, I indulged her by walking up and down each aisle, even though we didn’t need anything else. She asked if we could buy a couple of plants, one with pink blossoms, another with white. We added them to our basket and checked out.

In the car, she asked where we were going next. I told her home, and she burst into tears. “You promised me colors!” she sobbed. I had no idea what’s she was talking about. “You got some colors. You have pink, and white, and green,” I say, pointing to the plant she’s holding. “Noooooooooo! The purple, and the blue!” I’m flummoxed. “Mom, I don’t understand. Tell me what you mean.” She wails, “I’m so stupid!” “No, Mom, you’re not stupid. Tell me once more what you’d like so that we can go to the right place to get it.” “SHUT UP!”

I have patience. Until I don’t.

“I’m sorry. Did you just tell me to shut up?” She sobs quietly. She eventually tells me she wants to buy clothes.

We enter Target, and she pushes the buggy. We walk up and down aisles. She gazes longingly at the items. We are in the children’s section, and she picks up a sweater set, size 24 months. “So beautiful…” “It is pretty, Mom.” “I want to buy it.” “For who, Mom?” “LORI!” she shouts exasperated. “For me!” “Mom, this is children’s clothing. This won’t fit you. Let’s head over to the adult section.” “LORI! You don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course this will fit.” I place the sweater set back on the rack and we make our way to the adult clothing section. She pouts and sullenly follows me to the women’s clothing section.

“Oh! I like this one! Can I have it? Do we have any money?” “Yes, we have money. That’s really pretty.” I hold it up to her to make sure it will fit. “It looks like it will fit. If you’d like it, you can have it.” “I need three, or four.” “Why don’t you pick out three for today?” We walk through the department, and she lovingly caresses each sweater, exclaiming how beautiful each one is. She chooses three, and I tell her good job, and we’ll check out now. “NOOOOOOOOOO!” she yells and starts crying. People turn their heads and stare. “Mom, you’ve got some beautiful sweaters; let’s pay for them and go home.” This is my first mistake. Thinking that logic will resonate. Still sobbing, she blubbers, “You don’t let me have anything.” Again, I try logic. “Mom, you have three beautiful sweaters. Let’s walk towards the check-out.” “I hate you!” and she stomps her foot.

I want, so badly, to grab her by the arm and drag her to the check-out. And I’m overcome by a sense of deja vu.

I’m four years old, and we’re shopping at the downtown Sears. I’m not sure what I’ve done, but Mom is not happy with me. She grabs my arm, by my teeny tiny bicep, hard, and yanks me through the store. I remember her yelling at me, saying that she would never take me out in public again.

Back in present day, I sigh. I hug Mom and she pushes me away. I start walking towards the front of the store, and she walks a few steps behind me, stopping every so often to look at something. She’ll catch up with me and add something to the cart. When she stops to look at something else, I take it out of the cart and hang it, in the wrong place, in the wrong department, saying a silent apology to the team members working that day. Occasionally, I turn to look and she’s not there, so I backtrack, wondering which department she’s snuck into. After a half hour of this, we make it to the check-out and are on our way home.

We pull up in front of our house and before I can turn off the car, she turns to me, “Can we go shopping?”

Shhhh….

Today’s Bloganuary prompt:

Where do you go when you need solitude?

If I have the luxury of time, I head to the mountains. One of my favorite things to do is hike without the consideration of time. Wandering up hills, down paths, staring at the sky, sitting still on a rock or hillside, embracing the quiet. It’s my time to think about hard things, or nothing at all.

If I don’t have the luxury of time, I head to my back deck. Our house is built on a hill, so even though the deck is off the main floor, it’s among the treetops. In the summer, I’m surrounded by a canopy of hemlocks and maples, green all around. In the winter, it’s more stark, but still offers me a quiet escape, even if only for a few minutes.

Magical Moments

Early in the morning, Mom crept into my bedroom and crawled into bed beside me.

“Did you look outside?”

“I did, Mom. It’s really pretty out there, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

Silence.

“Let’s go back to my room. It’s prettier in there.”

“Your eyes are closed. How do you know it’s prettier?”

She tugged me out of bed.

In her room, we sat in her bed, propped up against her headboard, looking out over the front yard, the street, the majestical trees, all covered with snow, and soft, clumpy flakes continuing to fall from the sky.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It is, Mom. It is.”

There are hard moments. And there are magical moments like this.

I Scream! You Scream! We All Scream for Snow Cream!

With so much fresh, powdery snow, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to make snow cream. It’s part of the magic of snow days in the south. You take what has fallen from the sky and turn it into the most delectable sweet treat ever made.

Secretly, longingly, I hoped that making snow cream would trigger memories for Mom. We had made snow cream during the few big storms of my childhood. Would that be far enough back that she might remember?

As we finished our chicken noodle soup, I asked her if she’d like to do something special. She stared at me, not really comprehending what I was asking. “We’re going to make snow cream!” She continued to stare. “Like ice cream! Sweet and cold!” When she heard “ice cream” she got up. I pointed to her bedroom slippers. “You’ll need to put on shoes that cover all your feet.” She said, “Oh, yes,” and walked into the living room. “They’re by the stairs, Mom.” She started towards the fireplace. I followed her and gently touched her arm. “This way, Mom.” “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

In the kitchen, I set out what we’d need: a large bowl, a wooden spoon, vanilla, and a can of sweetened condensed milk.

Getting ready to make snow cream

On the back porch we knocked the icy top off of the mound of snow, then began scooping the powdery fluff into a bowl. Always better to have too much than not enough, so I filled it full.

Fresh snow!

Back in the kitchen, we sprinkled vanilla over the top, then began pouring sweetened condensed milk over the mound of snow.

Adding vanilla and sweetened condensed milk

Then we stirred, and stirred, and stirred.

Stirring and stirring and stirring

And then the finished product! Perfection!

A bowl of fresh snow cream
Yum, yum, yum!

Sadly, this didn’t dislodge distant memories for Mom. She kept saying, “This is so good. I’ve never had this before!” And as soon as I washed the bowls, she came into the kitchen, asking for some more of the cold white stuff. All in all, a win.

Getting Older

Today’s Bloganuary prompt:

What is a cause you’re passionate about and why?

There are a few.

Ending mass incarceration in the United States.

Eliminating food insecurity.

And one that I’ve thought about more and more over the past few years: systems to support the aging population in the US. This wasn’t top of mind until I became my Mom’s guardian. And as I have navigated everything on her behalf, I have to wonder how people (especially aging persons with dementia) address this if they don’t have an advocate. I am incredibly grateful that we have resources to make this easier. Before I became her guardian, I was living close by. My father had the foresight to procure long term care insurance that mitigates the financial burden of care. I live in a city with a large retired population which has incredible healthcare resources. And as I’ve navigated this, I’ve noticed that caretaking generally falls to a child or another family member. What happens if there isn’t a child or family member?

It’s not just logistics. What about quality of life? Making sure that there’s a place they can call home. That is safe. That is stimulating. With healthy food. That may have been what assisted living facilities set out to provide when they were conceived. And COVID exposed the limitations of those facilities. One of the most dehabilitating factors for someone with dementia is isolation. And that’s what COVID forced upon folks in assisted living facilities. So. Much. Isolation. I understand they were doing the best they could with the information at hand. The isolation, though, was one of, if not the main, reason I decided to move Mom in with me. And had I known at the time how difficult it would be, I may have thought twice about that decision. But it makes me wonder what will happen when I reach that stage. And what options will be available.

Snow Day!

The big news is that Izzy is coming to town. Over the past few days we’ve heard we’d get a dusting of snow, 3 – 6 inches, 12 – 18 inches, or even 24 inches. That’s a pretty wide range. It honestly doesn’t matter. Regardless of how much we get, things will essentially shut down. And I’m kind of looking forward to it.

There’s something magical about a snow day. About waking up, looking outside, and seeing everything transformed, covered in a blanket of white. Quiet. As if the covering of snow dampens sounds, a hush encompassing the world.

Snow days as a child were an adventure. We didn’t have many, but the ones that we had were doozies. We often lost power during snow storms. When I was maybe seven or eight, there was one storm where the power was out for a week. And I loved it. We huddled in our den, the room closed off to the rest of the house to conserve heat, wood stove burning. We each had multiple quilts and blankets that we snuggled under, the weight of the blankets providing comfort. We cooked our meals in a dutch oven in the wood burning stove. Soup and bread. With snow cream for dessert. Snow, vanilla, and sweetened condensed milk. And the belief that snow could be transformed into the most delicious treat ever with a few stirs. We read during the day and talked at night or played board games by candlelight. I was sad when the electricity returned. I loved being together in our cocoon.

We’re ready as we can be for the weather this weekend. The pantry is stocked, there are flashlights (with new batteries) and candles in each room, the gas fireplace is working, blankets are easily accessible, all devices are charged.

And there’s a large bowl ready to put out on the back deck, ready to catch a fresh bowl of snow for snow cream, if we should be so lucky.