A Death in the Family

It was an ordinary Thursday; as if any days are ordinary. We woke, had breakfast and began the tour of dropping one son off at the college for his classes, dropping another son off to the high school for his day and brought our foster son to the agency for his family visit. Ordinary chaos in our household on an ordinary day.
In the midst of waking up and making breakfast, I noticed a missed call on my cell phone. It was my brother-in-law. Odd, I thought. He never calls me. But there was no message and no second call so I figured it was a ‘butt dial’ and went about my morning.
On my way back to the house for a few minutes of calm before the next storm, my brother-in-law called again. His first words were, “Mary, I have some sad news.” I couldn’t have imagined the next words from his mouth. “Your mother passed away this morning.” I immediately pulled over, sobbing and trying to breathe. I was alone in the car but I knew I needed to make the calls I have dreaded for years. First, I called my husband. He was working on the other side of the county with a three house time difference and had just gone to bed from his night shift. I couldn’t rouse him. The next calls went to our boys, all of whom were in classes and I had to leave messages to call me as soon as possible. I drove to each campus, three in total, to tell them in person their beloved Nonnie was gone. I called a close cousin and asked her to please call the rest of the family and let them know we lost mom. I went to pick up the baby after his visit and had to inform those who were involved with his case of a death in the family and what I would need from them to assist in his care while I attended to the arrangements. I don’t know how I got to everyone like I did but I managed to spread the devastating news.
Mom hadn’t been sick, per say. She had her medical conditions but nothing seemed as though death was imminent. She had been in the hospital the night before to stabilize her blood sugar levels but nothing that was alarming enough to keep her admitted. She came home, sat up and visited for a while then told my father she was tired and headed to bed. That was the last time dad heard her sweet voice. She had passed peacefully during the night; when dad woke, she had already been gone for some time.
My dad was crushed, devastated, and broken-hearted. This was his beautiful bride of 43 years who weathered all kinds of storms with him – raising teen age girls with all their mood swings, job changes, cross-country moves, and deaths in the families. They saw the graduations of their daughters from high school and college, the weddings that added sons-in-law to the mix, the births of their eight grandchildren, and time to themselves. The happiness they created in those four+ decades is what helped get me through the days following her passing.
The day before mom died, I spent trying to figure out how to get the water running in our house again. It was a frustrating few days for the members of this house. My life was carrying on with its ups, downs and mundane tasks that make up my life. My mother and father spent it as they did every day – together, watching TV, talking and loving each other. I am sure mom went with a smile on her face and love in her heart – the love she gave and the love she received. I will miss her every day and thank her for being my mother. She is at peace and not in pain. I have faith in that.

Do Unto Others

Just over a year ago, I began caring for my parents on a more regular basis. I moved back to the area to be closer and should they need anything, I’d be a moment or two away. Their needs became more pressing and ongoing than I could have imagined but nothing that I could not handle as their daughter and as a trained nurses assistant.
I took a CNA class when I lived in Michigan to get a job that would pay a little higher than I was making and expand my experiences in caring for others. Up until that point, I cared for young children – my own and those of others, in my licensed daycare home. It was easy to change the diapers of infants and toddlers, plan an activity to keep two and three year olds occupied and help four year olds prepare for kindergarten. But now I was making the leap from those starting out their lives to those now in a place they never thought they’d be. Sounds easy enough, right?
As my instructor showed us films and read from a text book, the best thing she did was to give us the hands on experience of caring for other adults – each other in class. We fed each other different foods so we would understand how to feed someone and what it would feel like to be fed. We put on different glasses with various vision problems so we could understand what it felt like to not have the sight we were used to. We each lay in a hospital bed while we were ‘bathed’ and had our abilities temporarily removed to feel helpless and have someone else have to provide the personal care we would do every day on our own. In addition to learning to care for another adult, we learned what it felt like to be cared for. It brought a new meaning to ‘do unto others as you would want done unto you.’
In caring for mom, it was difficult to watch as she struggled to remember how to wash her face or how to brush her teeth. There were many days where she wouldn’t get dressed because she didn’t remember how. I became her hands and eyes as I got her ready for her day and for bed each night. I remembered how she wouldn’t leave the house unless she was washed and clean, dressed and matched. Why should that be any different now that she can’t remember how? I would comb her hair, leaving a bit of a bang across her forehead. She would get mad and move it herself so I didn’t do that anymore. It wasn’t about what I wanted for her. It was about who she was, who she still is and who she wanted to be.
Showers were difficult. The tub itself wasn’t helpful for mom to get in and out of so we had to work as a team to get in and out. I can take a shower anytime I want but mom had to wait for me to help her. Once a week, twice a week, it wasn’t on her time. I tried to let her soak up all the hot water she wanted for as long as she wanted, knowing how nice a long hot shower is sometimes, but her skin wasn’t as strong as it once was. Aging skin is thinner, tears more easily and needs more conditioning than when one is younger. Washing it too much can cause it to be brittle and tear, causing a host of other skin problems. I became more conscious of caring for her skin than even she probably did when she was younger.
Mom didn’t quite have to be fed but her eating habits changed a great deal. Alzheimer’s had her believing she had eaten when she hadn’t and not eaten when she had just finished a meal. Dad would cook for her and I would set her plate, sometimes cutting her food so she could eat it without wondering what to do with a plate of food in front of her. It was difficult to watch, so very difficult. Then I would wonder how many times she fixed my plate when I was young and didn’t know what to do with a plate in front of me. It was a role reversal of sorts that, at that point, only I understood.
As I cared for mom, and dad too, I would think about what it would be like if that were me. How would I feel to have someone give me a shower and not be able to just hop in the tub when I wanted? What it would be like to have to wait for someone to take me to the bathroom instead of just getting up and walking there? I have an amazing amount of freedom and independence that I think I sometimes really do take for granted. It’s only when one cares for someone else can they see themselves potentially in that light. Nobody lives their life saying ‘I can’t wait to get old and have to depend on someone for my daily needs.’ I think that everyone, whether they have to care for someone else or not, should take a CNA course and see what it’s like on the other side. Maybe it will help people be a little more tolerant of each other and of the aging process.
Mom always told us ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ I had no idea back then how true it would be for her and I now.

Cleaning Out Stuff – Coming Away with Memories

My parents were always on the move. They weren’t nomadic hippies trying to quench an unfulfilled desire or to find themselves. They more likely had adult ADD and just felt the urge to move every so often. We lived in a many places over the years and I probably wouldn’t trade any of them. It does cut down on the amount of stuff they accumulated over the years. Moving often tends to cut down on the clutter.

The last home they had was a three bedroom, two bath home in a quiet suburban setting. They had tote after tote, box after box, moved in and ready for unpacking. Each box was clearly labeled – living room, kitchen, open first. Dad had a system; after all, he’d been doing this for a few years. Mom followed along, wrapping dishes with newspapers and remembering the holidays that went along with each china dish and where the collection of coffee mugs came from. They had this down to a science.

This time, it was my turn to pack and move their belongings. Many of their things held memories for me – a cookbook that we made peanut butter cookies from when I was a child to a hand-written recipe for scalloped potatoes from a great aunt, who’s writing I recognized immediately. I found many old black and white pictures with the skinny white border surrounding the edges. I didn’t know many of the people in the photos but mom sure remembered each one. And with each memory she was transported back in time to that exact party, the reason for that gathering and the people she loved. I told myself to remember what she said and write on the back of each photo so I could remember along with her.

There were a lot of things that I thought were junk and wanted to discard. They were not things that I would have saved but it wasn’t my place to throw them away. There was a reason some things have survived 42 years and almost as many moves. Those reasons belonged to mom and dad and it would be up to them to decide what to do with those.

So everything has been boxed and moved to their new home. With each box I packed and labeled, I wasn’t sure which ones they would ever go through again. Will the memories be boxed up forever? Or at least until I have to go through them again for their final disposition. Then it will be my decision on what to do with everything. That is not something I look forward to at all.

It’s a difficult decision for adult children to decide on the care their older parents will receive. What they need, where is the best place for them, what can I do to help make it easier are some of the questions going through your mind at that time. Much like the same questions our parents had when they had their children – what will they need, where is the best place to live and what I can do for them to make their lives easier.  Ah…the circle of life.

Holidays

Holidays for our home mean family, decorations and food. Lots and lots of food. From the traditional calamari and seven fishes to our own traditions of lasagna with pepperoni, we have made many dishes over the years.

 As children, we sat at the kitchen table and watched while Mom and Aunt Dolly made the Christmas cakes. Traditional treats with jellied fruits, nuts, and a generous helping of cinnamon, sugar and honey were made EVERY Christmas. They were given as gifts to loved ones and some were saved for us. It was a tradition that I truly miss sharing with them, but have tried my best to continue this with our children, along with my nieces and nephews.

We have a Christmas Cookie Baking Weekend where Mom, Dad and my four nieces come over for breakfast, which usually consists of bacon, eggs and toast. And coffee…many cups of coffee. Once the breakfast dishes are cleaned up, the real fun begins. We gather ingredients for several types of cookies all at once. Then there are cookie stations. Soft Italian cookies, wine barrels (‘barrels’ of dough with wine, deep-fried in a pan of oil and drizzled with honey and sprinkles), chocolate chip cookies and sometimes molasses cookies. Whatever cookie we can dream up, we will make. It’s two days filled with laughter, sweets and cherished memories. We tell the children stories of our childhood Christmases and hope they can feel the love that we did when we were children.

Speaking of when we were children, while Mom held down the fort inside with the Christmas cake making, Dad took care of the outside. He decorated our home with lights, over-sized candy canes, an abundance of Santas, and then more lights. He was the original Clark Griswold. We had the big outdoor lights that were painted the holiday colors of red, blue, green, white, orange and yellow. We had enough to go around the outside of a two story house two times over. We had the white and colored ‘twinkie’ lights that flashed on and off at regular intervals for around the windows and around the tree. And don’t forget the silver tinsel! That was the best part!! We took that stuff by the handfuls and threw it on the tree.  Where it landed, it landed. Mom wasn’t a big fan of it, though I never truly understood why until I had children of my own.

I clearly remember one year that there was a rash of Christmas lights thefts. Dad was frustrated to have to go over each line to find the missing bulb and replace it, only to be out there again the next night because another one was missing. So he set a trap. Dad and his brother sat outside and waited for the culprit. Sure enough he showed up. With his pockets full of bulbs, he was cornered by the brothers. They brought him into the house to find he was a local teenager. They scared the pants off of him. I remember seeing the look of fear on his face when dad said he was going to call his mother….. and dad did call his mother, although I was sent to bed at that point. I can only imagine that kid never stole another Christmas light again.

I have now inherited their Christmas decorations. I have a few of my own from over the course of the years, but they pale in comparison to the stash my father had. Time gets away from me and every year I say I am going to do the decorations like dad did and I am going to make the cakes like mom did—but it doesn’t seem to happen that way. Life gets in the way.

 I need to make the time to smell the Christmas cookies and enjoy the light show.

Mary in the Middle ~ The Beginning

As I watch our 15-month-old foster son meander through the house, touching everything he sees, I am typing on the computer.

My husband is on his laptop in the living room and the television is on. We are living married life. Sometimes it seems like we are the only ones who do this; then I realize my parents lived life too.

It’s hard to imagine a world without television, phones, computers, Internet, all the technology that we can’t seem to live without. Hundreds of thousands did that before; some still do that now.

My father watched family entertainment go from gathering around the radio on a Saturday night to television and movies to computers and the Internet. My mother played sports after school before Title IX gave women the right to do so. They both worked hard for what they wanted in their business and professional lives, something they taught us girls all about.

They met. They fell in love. They married and had children. They had good years and they had bad years. They watched family members come and go, birth to death, as the life cycle ran its course.  They entertained family with barbecues, holiday celebrations and anytime gatherings just to get together. They raised their children with love, patience, understanding and loyalty. They watched their children grow and sprout wings of their own. Then they were able to do their own things—go bowling, have quiet dinners alone, take trips. The empty nest made for a time of reconnecting with each other and time to take up hobbies they didn’t know they wanted to.

Grandchildren brightened their lives, one at a time. Three boys came along, then four girls and a boy. Watching their faces light up when their grandchildren came to visit was priceless. It still is a sight to see.

But now, old age and disease is robbing them of their lives. Cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s—all take from my parents in one way or another. We watch as they struggle to perform daily tasks like getting dressed and taking a shower. We, as daughters, struggle to help them as best we can, to keep their dignity intact, above all else.

Now it is our turn to take care of them as well as our families and all that we have going on a day-to-day basis. We are the Sandwich Generation.

We may not be officially Baby Boomers by year of birth, but we are going through the same toils as they are. We strive to provide the best lives for our children and our parents all while trying to figure out who we are and who we want to become.

It’s a labor of love all the way around.