A Long Way to Tipperary

She rested her head on my shoulder like a child in need of a good read. We hummed along to Irish tunes floating through the halls.

It’s a long way, to Tipperary.” “Tipperary,” she sung back.”

I flipped through the pages of a worn Redbook magazine, Mom occasionally reading whatever words were in large print. When I landed in the Food section, a few colorful dinners caught her eye. Tagliatelle with Peas. Sicilian Pasta.

She read each headline, and I read the recipe below it.

“Oh my, that sounds a bit tart for me.” “Too salty.” My comments, not hers.

Instead, Mom took a page between finger and thumb, and tore one page then the next from the binding.

“Its just like we’re at the hair salon, Mom. Ripping apart these magazines.”

She burst into giggles. “Yeah.”

Then Mom handed the tattered sheets to me – was she expecting me to cook dinner? – and sang, “Tipperary.”

And together, we crooned, “But my heart lies there.”

It was a joy-filled exchange after a long day.

I had spent the morning and part of the afternoon at Refresh Your Soul, an Alzheimer’s and dementia care conference sponsored by Episcopal Retirement Services, listening with rapt attention to several inspirational speakers give rise to their own journeys.

I hadn’t planned to visit Mom afterwards. And yet, on those days, surprises emerged. If I arrived with cookies, expecting gratitude, or if I showed up with photos for her to view, my best laid plans, together with Mom and I, completely melted down. But in the rare instances for which I had no plan, were the brightest lights.

The conference had absorbed so much mental space, and offered me many writing prompts, that I preferred to be home. Oftentimes, I struggled with writing about Mom so she will live on in my memory versus sitting with her in the present while she is still alive. I decided on the latter.

After the conference ended, I drove a few miles up the highway to see Mom. As I exited the ramp, I careened around the curve, only to find an abandoned car on the side of the road with a familiar sticker on the bumper. Women Writing for a Change. My car sported one too.

I looked up ahead and spotted two forms walking along the burn. I rolled down my window. “Hey! Angela! What’s going on?” I was full of amazement that I actually knew one of the persons.

“Oh, I ran out of gas.” Angela looked at me like my appearance was the most natural event the world at that moment. Maybe she was a more fervent believer in Fate than I was.

“Well, hop in. I’ll take you and your son to the station.” The station was in view, and was technically only a half-mile away.

She introduced me to her son, and we sped off to the station. Her eighth-grade son and I waited for her to procure a gas can, having typical awkward conversations. Then, I drove she and her son as close to the car as I could come, given the access ramp. I steered back into the flow of traffic, remembering I hadn’t even planned to drive that stretch that day.

Paying attention to the small things, I was where I was supposed to be for the minute, the day, the month.

Back to Mom. I had found her sleeping in a kitchen chair. She always did gravitate to upright chairs. She found some comfort for her aching hips by sitting in proper posture.

She and I had walked for bit, listened to the Merry Moores Duo, and found ourselves navigating a number of magazines. Mom’s eyes grew wide as she perused the meal section of the Redbook periodical. She rarely ate meals that resembled gourmet. Much of her meal was pureed (soft mechanical), which still left some wiggle room for cookies. She’s never challenged in digesting cookies.

After we leafed through the Food section, and discussed our likes and dislikes for each dish, Mom laid her head on my shoulder again, as if she had consumed an entire meal and now prepared for sleep.

In actuality, late afternoon was Mom’s time of day to nap. Valerie, her evening shift caregiver once told me, “If I lay her down a little before dinner, then she gets through dinner, and has a nice comfortable evening.”

Sleep was coming on full-steam. So, I let her fall while my mind drifted back to the conference speaker.

John O’Leary, author of On Fire, posed a few questions to ask ourselves each day, and offered suggestions on how to reframe the answers given back to ourselves.

“Why me?” What about my life had offered the opportunity to care for Mom? And what blessing could I find in the day when given this opportunity?

John asked the audience to meditate on the question of gratitude while he sat to the play the piano. To understand what an accomplishment that was, one needs to know that John, as a nine-year-old, suffered third-degree burns over 100% of his body. Both his hands had been amputated. But his mother insisted he continue his piano lessons, for five more years.

John played “Memories” in the most hauntingly beautiful, but painstaking fashion. The audience closed their eyes and went quiet.

Participants were next prompted to answer “why me” and write to the gratitude that can be found in the disease of forgetting. What had come into one’s life, as a caregiver, that wouldn’t have come otherwise?

My tablemate generated a list of ten thoughts. Another young tablemate drew a blank, as tears continued to flow down her cheeks from the piano music. She was more a hearer than a talker or writer, she confessed.

I didn’t hesitate. And not because I was a writer.

I wrote furiously because I had been in the midst of experiencing Mom’s Renaissance, Part Two. Or Part One-Thousand. I had lost count how many of those she had. I turned giddy as she turned more giddy, and I became like Buddha with all sorts of wisdom to offer.

To witness the transformation of my mother from an older person with a disease into a human being. Not her actual transformation, but the one I am experiencing with my own eyes.

Mom fidgeted when she heard a loud noise in the hallway, breaking my trance.

“Mom,” I whispered to wake her up.

“Yes?” she whispered back in a game of telephone.

“I have to leave.”

“Okay, honey.” She took my chin in her hands and kissed me on the lips.

“Oh, you call everyone honey these days.” I shook my head.

“Yes, you’re right,” she confirmed without understanding my context, only hers.

“Ciao, bella,” I said, as last my goodbye, and we threw each other kisses with our hands.

Mom’s last months of 2016 had been hellish. My first months of the year, busy.

But she and I had settled back into our rhythms, though not necessarily as mother-daughter. And not always as caregiver-loved one.

We had simply become me and you.

It was a long way to Tipperary to the sweetest gal I know. And if our time together offered the opportunity to witness her transformation, surely her gift had been to witness mine.

 

 

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Still Saving Seats in Old Age

FullSizeRender-28Big, burly Jack moved closer to the adjacent chair.  Jack was saving that seat in the activities’ room for Emma. But Emma was already gone.

With youthful-bobbed white hair, Emma had been a resident at Mom’s care home. Always upbeat, Emma never stopped smiling, could still stroll the path at the former Blue Ash airport, and waxed poetically about times when she was little.

Emma’s husband had passed away, prior to her entering Arden Courts. Rumor was, Emma also had a boyfriend named “Jack” before her family had admitted her to the care home. When Emma arrived at Arden, she was soon found seated in the westside parlor with another resident, Big Jack. The two could be seen finding humor in themselves (see Vignettes from a Care Home), gazing out the window, or interacting with visitors and staff.

The parlor faced the secure door. Oftentimes, upon my entry, I gravitated towards Emma and Jack first, before seeing my Mom, and offered a hug, a laugh, a where have you been sort of joke to turn the tables on their lives and mine. Their presence, an unusual lightness in their togetherness as Jack was always seated on the chair and Emma on the love seat, lifted and warmed me before I would learn what condition or mood I might find Mom in for the day.

It was as if the two had already shared lifetime together.

Both residents possessed moderate cognitive impairment. For caregivers and staff, who care for more difficult cases and love each person for who they are, residents like Emma and Jack were subtle reminders of the lives residents used to lead, the persons they used to be before they slipped out of those skins. Emma and Jack were also tokens of how sneaky and impactful love can be.

Their joy in each other’s company was evident, palpable, such that I often sat with Mom in their company to relish in that bliss. Theirs was the purest form of love.

Emma had found joy in someone who she didn’t know where he had worked. Jack had discovered delight without knowing how many children Emma had birthed. Neither had known where the other one lived or was born or what was important to them, though I suspect some topics might have risen to the surface and then soon were let go. The only thing each of them remembered was love.

One morning, I arrived to learn Emma’s son had moved her to another care home. That event occurred often, when the money ran out, when the siblings fought, when the individual progressed into a new phase of the disease.

There was never a guarantee that the first place or the best place would be the last place.

Now, I see Jack sitting behind his walker in his usual chair near the exit door, as if ready to depart. The caregivers informed me he is still saving a seat for Emma, yet his disposition is as corny as ever. “Dad” jokes come to mind. Jack still returns hugs when I offer my arms. When I say, “I’m off to go see my mom,” Jack responds, “Tell her I said hello, would ya?”

As for Emma, love had left her time and again. But she didn’t act like a person who would ever lose the capacity to love. Emma will offer and find love at her next place, of that I am certain.

Perhaps Emma’s time with the residents was to give just that, the ability to love again.

And the empty seat next to Jack? The ratio of women to men in memory care centers is 3:1. Sadly, plenty of women will arrive to take Emma’s place. But I hope Jack stands (or sits) his ground, and doesn’t relinquish that chair, as a reminder of how fleeting and precarious unions can be, and yet still be profound.