Category Archives: Love

Tidings Of Comfort and Joy

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This the final post in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Two family members will be missing from our family Christmas gatherings this year.

My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. She hadn’t been well enough to participate in our family Christmas celebrations for the past few years. Instead, we had established different traditions with her at the Healthcare Facility in which she lived.

My sister’s husband died in August as a result of Lymphoma, just one year after being diagnosed with what was believed to be a treatable cancer. We didn’t know last Christmas would be his final Christmas.

Many extended family members and friends are also facing their first Christmas after the loss of a loved one. The anticipation of seeing that empty chair can seem overwhelming. Recalling once-happy Christmas memories leaves you in tears.

I love Christmas music, despite the physical reaction I have to “O’ Holy Night” and “Silent Night.” Both cause my eyes to instantly fill with tearsThe first was one of my Dad’s favorite songs. It brings to mind the Christmas Eve Masses we attended. The second reminds me of my paternal Grandmother and her annual family party held on December 23rd.

At one point during the evening she would remind us to sing carols to invite Santa Claus’s arrival. Grandma would begin singing “Silent Night.” Looking back, maybe this was her clever crowd control:  Gather her 24 grandchildren and quiet them with the lullaby effect of a hymn! When I hear the song, I hear her voice.

A few weeks ago I was in the car with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” playing on the radio. The song suddenly had a different meaning as I listened to the lyrics.

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy? Wow! We were definitely in need of both this Holiday season. Where would we find them?

Then I unpacked some Christmas decorations. I was struck by the notes indicating the contents of some the boxes. It has been several years since my Mother and her Mother have written anything to me, but their handwriting is instantly recognizable.

Seeing the notes didn’t make me sad. It wasn’t even bittersweet. They made me smile. The notes are a connection to Christmases past, and a connection to my Mom and Grandma. I felt they were with me, giving me a decorating assist with their organized labeling. Funny, I didn’t know one day the real treasures in a box of Radko ornaments would be labels and crumpled sticky notes.

I think comfort can be found in our family traditions. As difficult it might be to carry on traditions without our loved ones, the familiar might be just what we need. They can at least get us in the groove, and provide a bit of a roadmap.

Traditions can be just as comforting when a new generation assumes them. My niece misses playing elf on her annual shopping day with her Dad, during which they would purchase a gift for her Mom. I imagine my niece’s  little elf-in-training will be shopping with her Daddy, very soon. How heartwarming is that?

I’m a fan of Christmas trees with eclectic decorations. Family heirloom ornaments that have hung on the tree for decades are some of my favorites. Whether they are legitimate antiques, a grade school craft, full of mid century kitsch or the coveted pickle, they tell the comforting history of family Holidays.

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Holiday menu fare includes family recipes that have become tradition. Grandma’s Jewish Coffee Cake, Mom’s Sugar Cookies, and Dad’s favorite cookies. We try to perfect those heirloom recipes in hope they will turn out exactly as they did when Mom or Grandma was cooking. After all, I think tradition is most comforting when it involves comfort food!

This Christmas, we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior, be visited by Santa, and exchange gifts, but how can we possibly get in the mood for actual merriment when we are sad, missing our loved one and face an empty chair?

The empty chair has become a symbol for the absence of loved ones at family gatherings. There is a Facebook page dedicated to it. It is both literal and figurative, because the reality is, our missing loved ones took up more than a chair. This is especially true of my brother-in-law. His presence filled an entire room.

He lived his life in the spirit of the two main men of Christmas. He never had to ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” He just always did the right thing. He was a counselor in personal matters and a mentor in the business world.  Like Santa, he loved Christmas and gift giving. His quiet, usually anonymous generosity continued year round, and was life-changing for individuals and organizations.

With such a huge presence missing, how will we find joy?

My brother-in-law’s family gathered at my sister’s home to celebrate Christmas last weekend. His six siblings and their children and grandchildren numbering 60+ strong embraced the spirit of their  brother/uncle. They “adopted” an in-need family and purchased every item on the family’s wish list.

What an absolute abundance of joy, and an abundance of love. My sister shared with them, her family of 40+ years, that the gift of their presence was what she and her children most appreciated. She assured them that they needn’t to be afraid to talk about her husband or say his name. In fact, hearing stories helps her and her children feel close to him, and in a way – keeps him alive.

So, our biggest source of joy, will come from simply being together.  The delight of our smallest family members will keep us entertained. We’ll savor our culinary accomplishments. We’ll talk about our missing loved ones. We’ll say their names. There may be a few tears, but there will definitely be alot of laughs.

If you are grieving and facing the first Christmas since the loss of a loved one, I hope you are able to find true comfort and joy.

Go ahead. Hang the ornaments. Sing the carols. Cry the tears. Fill the chair. Share the stories. Laugh.

And eat the cookies.

 

 

 

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On Grief And Gifts

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On Grief And Gifts

This is the 2nd post in a 3-part series. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

The past year has been one of tremendous loss for my family.

A surprising number of friends and extended family have also recently experienced the loss of parents, siblings, spouses and even relationships. Perhaps this is due to terrible coincidences, or maybe simply our stage of life.

There is a plethora of articles and memes about grief, sometimes poetic, often cliché. We hear it is a process, it’s not a process, it is different for each person, and the price you pay for loving someone. It’s all merely a concept until you are walking through it, as so many family and friends are doing right now.

My mother died in April after a ten-year journey with dementia. While we were at peace with her passing from the indignities and pain of that disease, I was unprepared for how much I would miss her…even the version of her that dementia had left with us in her final years.

Then, there was my sister’s husband.

His sore back from too much puttering didn’t really worry us. It didn’t put a damper on an RV trip to Iowa, with his six siblings and their spouses for a long-anticipated family reunion. It was sort of a last hurrah for him before undergoing a stem cell transplant in August.

Then a stomach ache cut the trip short. An appointment with his oncologist turned into a hospital stay. Instead of answers, there were only questions and a steady stream of specialists. Our optimism that had been ever-present for exactly one year, began to fade.

Late on a hot July afternoon, after three days of diagnostics and procedures we had an answer. The trusted oncologist, a lovely man, gently delivered the news:

After just a few weeks, the insidious cancer had returned…the stem cell treatment scheduled for next month would not be an option…there were no clinical trials available…there was nothing more to be done…three months to live.

He accepted the news graciously and bravely. For everyone else, it was crushing. It felt unbearable. Later that evening, we tenderly talked about how we would fill our days in the next three months. Characteristically, he started his practical to-do list and even managed a bit of morbid humor.

Things quickly took a downturn. Three months became two weeks. There would be no time for alternative or holistic treatments. Nothing was checked off the bucket list. Meaningful, final conversations were not to be.

The family control freaks, the doers, and the problem solvers were helpless. The earth seemed to be spinning off its axis.  This isn’t supposed to be happening.

In the end, we had him for just one more week. We soaked up very minute of those days and nights, in the warm cocoon of their master bedroom. We communicated with him mainly in the form of his signature hand squeeze of the last 40+ years. The hand squeeze translation:  I love you.  Looking back -really, what more needed to be said?

While our Faith leads us to the belief in eternal life, grief and being human led to despair over unanswered prayers.

There was so much to be mourned, and so many layers of sadness.

Each time grief appears, it’s a Band-Aid® ripper, tearing open the wounds of previous losses. The circle of one life linked to the circle of another life in an ever-growing chain.

Grief is tangible in the early days surrounding a loss, and it is shared.

Eventually, life resumes and things return to “normal”. Grief becomes subtle and sneaky. It’s a thief, stealing the rhythm of daily routine, as one tries to put one foot in front of the other.

The quiet, stillness of the night vanishes after a stealthy heist by grief and its accomplice, insomnia. Restful slumber is replaced with anxiety. Decisions that were made with complete conviction are now doubted.

Nagging thoughts of coulda… woulda…shoulda creep in.

The hope that previously dawned with each morning disappears, as consciousness brings about the reality of the day. You don’t want to get sucked into the sadness. It propels you to get up and get moving, even if you only do so robotically.

But, grief is a prowler creeping in and out through the day.

It hijacks your solo drive time behind the wheel. Once productive time alone with your thoughts, it becomes a minefield of memories. Forget the radio. It’s suddenly melancholic. The best option is to use a lifeline, and phone a friend.

Grief occasionally makes off with your rational thinking.

At the end of that last perfect weekend, I created a calendar for August and September. It included stem cell transplant appointments and procedures, and fun events to look forward to. Looking back, I felt I counted our chickens before they hatched. My obsessive organizing had compelled me to publish that calendar. Clearly, I had jinxed my brother-in-law’s treatment and recovery! My delusion of controlling the universe was momentary!

Like a prankster, grief pops out from hiding when you least expect it. During a recent trip to Target, I automatically reached for a display of Christmas socks. In my Mom’s final years, she had grown fond of those goofy, printed socks. They were already in my hand when it hit me…no need for socks to warm Mom’s tootsies. Ever. Oh no, did I have dementia? How could I forget  Mom had died? Was grief stealing my sanity, too?

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The human spirit is a life-force, and we optimists and faithful are always on the lookout for silver linings.

We soon realize grief is not all takin’ and no givin’.

Loss and grief give you a new perspective and enlightenment. You now distinguish real problems from minor inconveniences that warrant nothing more than a shoulder shrug.

While you may be filled with disbelief, and thoughts of  I can’t believe this happened are still running through your head, grief eventually leads you to a place of thankfulness. With time and reflection, you are even able to see the blessings that surrounded the unbearable loss.

Every expression of sympathy is appreciated. Especially months after a loss, each phone call, text, and thoughtful note is a Godsend.

The extraordinary kindnesses of acquaintances is especially meaningful. The people whom cross your path and without prompting, share news of their recent loss are a serendipitous comfort. You know it wasn’t accidental that they sat next to you in a waiting room, or rang up your purchases in a store.

You have immense appreciation for the people who are really there for you – the people who go out of their way and make time to walk through the particularly shitty times with you.

Then there are the folks, not necessarily those closest to you, whose support is profound. Their gestures of sympathy are different.  It’s not that they have the “right” words, they just have real words. These are the folks who have walked the same path, and as a result, possess true empathy.

We lose so much with the death of a loved one, but one of the greatest gifts we receive as a result of the loss is empathy.

We just have to be willing to receive it, open it, and use it.

Because empathy is a gift meant to be shared. It links us together in another circle of life.

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The Sweet Life

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2 scoops vanillaTen years ago my mother moved into a retirement community.

For six years she lived in a lovely apartment in the assisted living section, while her dementia continued to worsen. She has spent the last four years in a slow decline, in a secured area of that same retirement community.

As her dementia has progressed, I’ve done my best to embrace each version of her.

 

My 85-year old Mother is now in the end stage of dementia.

It may have been a stroke that caused her to turn this last corner, or just the natural progression of the disease. There is no need for diagnostic tests. They would only serve to satisfy our curiosity. The end result is the same.

As they say in memory care, “there has been a significant change.”

She is completely immobile except for her left foot which she wiggles in response to touch or in time to the music of Frank Sinatra, and her left arm which she occasionally raises while sleeping, bearing a strong resemblance to Rosie The Riveter.

She is no longer verbal.

Her ability to swallow is compromised. Her liquids must be thickened and her solid food must be pureed.

Four times a day she rides a Hoyer lift, as she is moved back and forth between her bed and a reclining wheelchair.  It’s as if she has a Disneyland E ticket for an amusement park ride no one ever wants to board. She endures it all gracefully.

At the onset of this final decline, I was sad. For a few days I occasionally boo-hooed at her bedside, grieving the decade and a half that we have lived without the original version of Mom.

Once I quit feeling sorry for myself, I realized there is a certain sweetness to this stage.

There are no more repeated sentences. The questions composed of jumbled words which seemed impossible to answer appropriately, have ceased. The gibberish is gone.

At times, she has a flat expression or is just too sleepy to open her eyes. But, some days she awakens from a nap in her bed with a sweet, contented smile – much like an infant.

Other times she is bright-eyed and able to follow a conversation with her eyes. There have been silent giggles that turn into giant, yet still silent, belly laughs. These are so delightful  I don’t miss the sound of her original laugh.

Occasionally, it seems that the pathways in her brain have been magically reconnected.

When she refused to eat, we realized she was simply refusing to eat foods with a texture she didn’t like. I mean, really – not every food works in a pureed form.

She knew exactly what was going on. Her hunger strike at breakfast ended when oatmeal was taken off the menu. My sister clued the nurses in that Mom is a cream of wheat girl!

Her daily menus are now heavy on mashed potatoes, pudding, malts, and double scoops of ice cream. When she won’t eat anything…she will eat ice cream. Even when she is too tired to open her eyes, she opens her mouth awaiting the next spoonful.

These days, she really does eat dessert first.

Sure, there have been peaks and valleys as she slows down and then rallies. Any pain or discomfort is quickly soothed by the warm embrace of a morphine haze.

Always a college hoops fan, she is here for one more season of March Madness. The games serve as energetic, happy background music.

As we head into the Sweet Sixteen,  I am not entirely certain she will be here for the Final Four.

Instead, she is on the road to a long awaited heavenly reunion with her  Sweetie Pie.

Until then, we will savor the time we have left with her.

Mom will savor the ice cream. Two scoops at a time, with Hershey’s syrup.

Because, in more ways than one, life is sweet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music & Memory

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I’ve witnessed the power of music with my Mom, who has advanced dementia.

On days when making conversation is difficult for her, she may ride quietly in the passenger seat of the car, or read a few signs we pass, or maybe whisper both sides of a conversation with someone I can’t see.

However, if the radio is set between a 40’s station and a light 70’s station, she’ll sing along. She’ll check the display to read the artist and song.

The songs trigger memories and conversation.

“Gosh, if I had a nickel for every time my girlfriends and I danced to this song.”

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name….I always thought their sound was just so pleasing to the ears.”

I know even this small bit of stimulation is good for her, and it is enjoyable to see.

A few months ago, I joined her for a Sunday afternoon of Christmas Carols at the care facility where she lives.

We sat amid a crowd of residents – many with dementia, and sea of walkers and wheelchairs,

Maybe I’ve watched too many Fa-la-la-la-Lifetime and Hallmark movies, but I swear Mike the piano player looked exactly like Kris Kringle in street clothes.

His repertoire included all the classics. He was delightful!

Occasionally, he stopped singing and let the group finish a line of a song.

The residents knew all the lyrics to every song.

I smiled as I looked around the room, and saw the heads bopping back and forth and the toes tapping in rhythm with the music.

No one was restless, agitated, or sitting in a dull, detached state.

The residents were relaxed and engaged with Mike and his performance.

It was fascinating to watch.

Somehow, the music magically melted through the fog of dementia.

I was so moved by what I was witnessing that I got a little teary.

Instead of looking sort of stone-faced as she had the previous day, Mom was animated.

She happily smiled at my phone so I could snap a pic.

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Christmas Caroling
Even Lois Anne loves a selfie!

The memory of that afternoon is a treasure.

A few days ago, my friend Terri, emailed me about a news story she had seen featuring Music & Memory – Muncie

This new program was started by a group of freshman at Ball State University. It is affiliated with Music & Memory, a national non-profit 501c3 organization, but the BSU students believe they are the first college-based group.

The mission of Music & Memory – Muncie is to bring iPods with personalized playlists to the elderly, especially those suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

They recognize that personalized music can enhance the quality of life for these nursing home residents with cognitive disorders.

This is a brilliant and beautiful program. I remember the soundtrack of my college years. These college freshman are just beginning to compile theirs. I love their awareness that these older folks had a soundtrack to their lives, too.

By speaking to a resident’s family, they learn what genre and artists the resident likes.

With this simple idea they’re delivering more than just music.

They’re sparking happy memories.

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They share friendship, love and compassion.

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With the use of splitters, the students listen to the music through their own set of headphones.

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Because music sounds best when shared, doesn’t it?

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What an amazing way to enrich and humanize an isolated, nursing home existence.

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When I read about their work and looked at the heartwarming photos, I was again moved to tears.

I was also filled with some Hoosier pride.

These college freshman are a great example of making the world a better place, by beginning in your own “backyard.”

They’re using their time and talents, employing a little bit of technology, but more importantly – a whole lotta heart.

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If this “strikes a chord” with you, like it did with me, and you are interested in supporting this wonderful program, there are a few ways you can help:

  1. Visit their gofundme page and make a quick donation. Super easy and every little bit helps!
  2. Have you or your kids upgraded to a new iPod? Do you have a gently-used iPod (preferably an iPod shuffle) sitting around the house? They’ll take it!
  3. Grab an iTunes gift card the next time you’re at the grocery store. They’re always right there in the checkout area. Then instead of buying Candy Crush lives – boost some more interesting and real lives.

iTunes cards or gently used iPods can be mailed to:

Music and Memory – Muncie
c/o TCOM Dept.
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47306 

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I hope you’ll consider helping these remarkable BSU students with their inspirational program.

Visit their website or Facebook page to learn more about their work.

In an email to me, Tyler Sparkman, President of Music & Memory – Muncie wrote:

It has become an absolute joy and life changing experience working with these residents. Not only have we gone in and helped change the lives of the elderly by sharing these personal iPod mixes, but the elderly have also changed our lives! 

Well, that is music to my ears.

Clearly, no matter what genre of music they load on those iPods, these students ROCK!

 

 

The Gift Of The Moment

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IMG_5465Next month, I will be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

This is very cool for me because I have always enjoyed Erma’s writing. It is often heartwarming, always pure comic genius, and timeless. Long before I could relate my personal life experiences to her writing, I thought she was hilarious.

At the age of 50, I have a greater appreciation for her insight and her use of  humor to celebrate the ups, and cope with the downs, of life. Life is short, but some days sure seem long. The ability to see the funny in everyday life is a gift.

Even Erma’s views on the subject of humor were insightful. Some of her more famous quotes about the importance of humor are:

If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.

He who laughs….last.

When humor goes, there goes civilization.

I have a sentimental attachment to her writing, because it reminds me of my Mom. When I was growing up, one of us would often ask the other, “Did you read Erma today?” Together, we laughed about her column, read her books and watched her segments on Good Morning America.

During the summer, we also tuned in at 9:00 a.m. to watch The Phil Donahue Show together. Oh, the education a teen could gain from The Phil Donahue Show back then. It was THE source for information, because he covered all the thought-provoking and juicy topics.

So, Phil and Erma are forever linked together in my mind. Not only because they are former neighbors who had a mutual admiration and affection for each other, but because they were involved in a sort of 1970’s Midwestern love triangle with my mom and me. Nothin’ weird here, this was a triangle of appreciation and adoration.

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We enjoyed Phil, and we loved Erma. Erma and Phil loved and adored each other.

In light of this, it is especially cool for me that Phil Donahue will be the keynote speaker at the The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

During a visit to my hometown over the holidays, I decided to tell my Mom that I had gotten into the workshop. The former version of my Mom would have been so tickled about this. I knew the current version of my Mom, with advanced dementia, would not fully grasp what I was saying. I also knew she would have absolutely no memory of the conversation, just a minute later.

Despite being the subject of a few blog posts, including Sweetie Pie and She’s Such A Doll; she knows nothing about my blog, and has never read a single post.

So, as silly as it may be, I still wanted to share this news with her, and just enjoy the moment. 

One afternoon I sat in her room, reading the Christmas cards she had received. Some included photos or letters. (For anyone who continues to remember nursing home residents with greeting cards, may God Bless you for this kindness.) We passed the cards, photos, and notes back and forth. She was able to fondly recall at least a small detail about each friend or family member.

She was “tracking” fairly well, so I decided to share my news with her. As we chatted, she was lying on her side, atop her bed, like a teenage girl. Her elbow bent, her head propped up in her hand.

“Mom, do you remember reading Erma Bombeck?”

“Oh GAWD, yes. She’s SO funny!”

“Well, do you remember my friend, Terri?”

“Well, of course. How is she?”

I went on to explain in very simple terms, with no details, that Terri and I would both be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio.

I never even got to the part about Phil Donahue.

My Mom sat up, and said, “Really? You’re kidding?”

Wow! Had I really picked the perfect lucid moment?

Then she said, “We should call Grandma! She loves Erma, too!  She’ll go with us!”

Chatting with dementia, the trickster, is sort of what I imagine doing improvisational comedy is like: you never know which direction your partner will go next. You need to be on your toes, open to anything, think quickly, and just go with it.

We both smiled at the idea.

It was a lovely moment.

I went with it.

“Sure, that’s a great idea, Mom!”

As she slowly counted off on her right hand, she said “That’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of us.”

Yep. Me, Terri, Mom, Grandma….and Erma gettin’ away for the weekend.

Of course, only three of us are actually alive, and only two of us are registered for the workshop.

Yet in some way, I feel like all five us will in fact be there.

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Laughter rises out of tragedy when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage.

– Erma Bombeck

She’s Such A Doll!

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My 82-year old Mother has a lifelong gal pal named Susie. They are about the same age, however Susie looks decades younger. In fact, she is positively ageless. Susie was a fixture in our home during my childhood, and after all these years, they are still inseparable.

My Mom’s voice is strong and she is very conversational and pleasant.  Susie may have retained her girlish appearance, however her voice is weak. You have to listen closely to hear what she says, and frankly, her vocabulary is pretty limited.

Susie’s given name was Mary Ann, but my Mom has always called her Susie. While she is not a blood relative, there is a strong family resemblance. In fact, she has my Grandmother’s hair. Seriously…..she literally has my Grandmother’s hair. Ten inches of auburn tresses, that were once Thelma’s crowning glory, have remained sewn onto and fairly neatly coiffed on Susie’s head for almost 80 years. Yes, it’s true, Susie is a doll.

As freakish as it may sound, dolls with wigs made of human hair were not uncommon in the early part of the 20th Century. Plastics hadn’t expanded to the toy industry, so many dolls had yarn for hair. Knowing how creative and artistic my Grandmother Thelma was, I can imagine how tickled she must have been when she was able to use her own hair to give her little girl’s doll a head full of luxurious, real hair.  It was a “locks of love” gesture of a different kind.

The novelty of Susie’s hair is what saved her from the trash or donation bag as my Mom grew older.  Susie even spent a few years in my bedroom with my Raggedy Ann, when I was a girl. Many years ago, long before the onset of my Mom’s dementia, Raggedy Ann made her way cross-country to me, along with the pink antique doll bed from my Mom’s childhood. Susie wasn’t in the box. I was surprised she hadn’t made the trip, but Mom wasn’t ready to part with her.

Two years ago, as her dementia started to progress, my Mom was in perpetual motion, cleaning closets and drawers, and purging clutter. Her lovely assisted living apartment, tidy by anyone’s standards, was constantly “just a mess” as far as she was concerned. Dementia patients sometimes react to the clutter in their mind, by trying to de-clutter their surroundings. She had lost the ability to recognize the monetary or sentimental value of her possessions. It was stunning to hear about the items recovered from her trash, by a sharp, honest, and caring member of the housekeeping staff. Despite all the “clean sweeps,” somehow,  Susie survived.

Eight months ago, Susie made the move with my Mom to the Care Facility where she now resides. My mom enjoys walking down the hall to happy hour and playing bingo. She used to enjoy listening to music; was a self-professed news-junkie; enjoyed watching her “story”  and always tuned into whatever the current major sporting event happened to be.  Now she spends a lot of  time in her softly lit room without the background music of Frank Sinatra or the TV tuned to current events on CNN.

Yes, sometimes the television is off  because she’s hidden the remote control in a drawer and has forgotten about it.  More often, it is because the noise of life is too much stimulation for her brain that is working hard to sort out things. As sad  as it can be for me to think of her sitting quietly in her room with the draperies closed on a sunny day, I know that sometimes, this is how she is most comfortable. When I call my Mom on the telephone and ask what she is doing, sometimes she says with a chuckle, “Oh, I’m just awfully busy!”  She’ll continue, “Not really.  I feel like I should be doing something, but I’m not sure what that is. Until I figure it out, I’m just sitting here relaxing. It’s just Susie and me.” So there Mom sits in her favorite chair, with Susie over on the sofa.

After my last trip to the Midwest, I thought Susie  needed a new dress and shoes. I couldn’t remember what type of doll she was. I dispatched my brother (recently celebrated during Jubilee Week) to do some investigating. I knew the pertinent info was somewhere on Susie’s body. A few days later after having lunch with Mom, he reported back:  Mission accomplished.  Susie is an Effanbee Lovums Mary Ann doll. Thankfully, no one saw him examining Susie, so there won’t be rumors circulating amongst the nurses and aides about Lois’s son:  you know, the pervy one who plays with dolls?

I should clarify that my Mom isn’t actually playing with Susie either. In her words, she  hasn’t “completely lost it!” I believe Susie is much more than a toy, anyway. Susie is a symbol of a mother’s love for a daughter. She is a link to the childhood years that are clear in memory, amid a lifetime that is sometimes forgotten. She is a source of familiar reassurance when things seem  confusing. She represents family (well, they do share DNA) when she feels disconnected.

For me, Susie reaffirms that while aging and dementia may have changed my Mom, altered her behavior and the way she is able to interact with us;  dementia doesn’t change who she is. Dementia has already taken much from her, but it can never steal her heart. When I look at a photo of  a young Lois Ann posing with Susie, I easily recognize a familiar mannerism of my Mother’s. Her arm is wrapped around the doll, and her hand is relaxed with her thumb tucked between her index and middle fingers. My Mom surely sat this way with her children, as I have seen her as Grandma Loie sit this way with her grandchildren. A lifetime of dogs sat in that spot and received countless pats on the head as well. The little girl in the old photo, and the 82-year old Mother I know now, share the same heart as the smart, funny and oh-so-wise Lois who raised me.

When I look at the old photo I also wonder what ever happened to that cool rattan settee.

Even knowing Susie’s pedigree, it has been difficult to determine her dress size. A few days ago, my sister took a tape measure with her when she went to see Mom. Mom asked her what she was doing, and my sister explained that I wanted to know how long Susie is. My mom corrected her, “You mean how tall she is?” As my sister wrapped the tape measure around Susie, Mom again asked what she was doing. My sister explained she was measuring Susie’s chest. “That’s her waist!”  Mom interjected. In my sister’s defense, Susie is a petite gal. She may be a bit short-waisted as a result of her 22″ stature.

So, the hunt for a new, age appropriate outfit for Susie continues. It will be a well-deserved rejuvenation to match her renewed importance. In the circle of my Mom’s life, she once again refers to herself as Lois Ann, and her little corner of the world is once again only a bedroom. I am so thankful that Susie and her angelic little face are still around to finish the journey.  It is at once miraculous, blessed, and magical.

Sweetie Pie

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This weekend marks what would have been the occasion of my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary.

My parents missed out on celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary  as many of my friends’ parents have been blessed to do this year. Their 34th anniversary was actually the last one they celebrated together because my Dad, Art died in 1986.

My Mother is 82. This smart, funny, and oh, so wise woman now lives in a care facility due to rapidly progressing dementia. Her short-term memory is completely gone. Confusion is pretty constant. Sometimes she is frustrated with her  “remember-er” that doesn’t quite work right.  Her life events are in a jumbled order. Overall, she is content and pleasant despite things being foggy for her.

One thing she remembers very clearly, however, is being madly in love with Art. She has a large framed photo of him, the love of her life, her Sweetie Pie. She hugs the photo and remarks about how crazy she was about him. She loved him with a heart and a half, she says.

I love to hear the story of how she met the love of her life. The thing about her dementia is, I can ask her the same questions every day, and it is like the first time she has heard them. She never tires of telling the story:

She was working as a nurse at a Catholic Hospital. She was from the  South Side, a Presbyterian not Catholic. Her fellow nurses were graduates of the Catholic High School. One day, she overheard them talking about a tonsillectomy patient they knew. Obviously, this was long before the existence of HIPPA. Surely, they must have been talking about how handsome he was, because she immediately went into the patient’s room and introduced herself. She liked him right away.

Eventually, he asked for her number. How confident he must have been, asking for her number while lying there wearing a hospital gown! Once discharged, he called her and asked for a date. Her mother thought this was inappropriate and told her she couldn’t go. After all, she was dating a fellow named Ned. Ned drove a convertible and happened to be a fantastic dancer, my Mother remembers.

A week later, Art was readmitted to the hospital with complications. Mom was “floating” – working where needed in the hospital.  As fate would have it, she was assigned to the floor he was admitted to, and was his nurse. This time, he went home and told his mother he’d met the cutest little nurse with the prettiest brown eyes. My mother went home and broke it off with poor Ned.  Art again asked her out, and this time she said yes.

I continue to ask, “What happened next, Mom?”

She recounts the events of 1950 in vivid detail:

Their first date was a picnic.

He was romantic.

She met his parents, Bill & Georgia.

They lived on Crescent

His brother Don was really young, only 10.

“What happened next, Mom?”

Lately, she replies, “Well, we went our separate ways. We never married or had children or anything. Boy, I sure would like to see him again!”

WOW! So in my Mother’s mind, Art is the one who got away!

In reality, the first weekend they went out, they knew they would marry, and he proposed just 2 weeks after their first date. She joined the Catholic Church and in 1951, they married.

They enjoyed 34 happy years together. Believe me, when I say, my parents were happy together.  They really never argued. Oh, to be sure, he pissed her off occasionally, especially if he messed with her cooking. He was known to sneak lemon flavoring into any baking recipe and added way too much black pepper to anything anyone was cooking. Funny, though, I don’t recall him ever being even the least bit miffed at her.

She has no memory of Art being the father of her five children. This is confounding to me, because at least for now, she still knows all her children and their spouses by name, as well as her grandchildren and their spouses, for that matter. Dementia is a puzzle.

You might think it would be sad to realize that she has no memory of her life with my Dad, or the fact that she has no memory of who our Father is. However, I’m a glass-half-full-silver-lining-look-at-the-bright-side-kind-of-girl. So for me, the fact that this huge chunk of her life has completely disappeared from her memory is not entirely sad. I have found an upside.

The beauty of dementia is that for my mother, the pain has all disappeared. The sudden and tragic loss of my Dad at the age of 54, is forgotten. This event that shook and forever changed our family doesn’t exist for her. The loneliness of being the “first” widow isn’t even a distant memory.  She doesn’t reflect on missing out on the joy of retirement with my Dad. For her there is no bitter, only sweet.

Many long-married couples have to make an effort to keep the so-called magic alive. Even some young couples struggle to remember the spark that originally ignited their courtship. Not so for my Mother.  All she has is the memory of the spark, the romance and of course, the love.  While she may not know today is her 61st wedding anniversary, or be able to remember it, no matter how many times she is told; she is a living example of the POWER of love. As cliché as it may sound, when all is said and done, really, all that remains is the love.  We know love never dies. Through my mother, I have learned it will NOT be forgotten.

“Did you ever meet him, the big guy?” She asks.

I tell her that I did meet him, and I do remember him.  And then, as I tell her I really do think she will see the love of her life again one day…selfishly, I silently hope it is not too terribly soon.