Aug 1, 2008

A Week Of Loss And Love

My mother came to visit for a week. She lives with my sister Nancy and her family in Colorado. Mom came last summer as well, and again over Christmas with my sister's family. I'd been looking forward to having her here but I'd been worried, too. (Mom had a stroke in 2001 which took a chunk of her vocabulary. She has been declining verbally and physically ever since).

Nancy and Phill warned me that Mom has gotten weaker. They also warned Mom that if she didn't go out for a walk every day she couldn't come to LA, because we've got a long flight of steps from the street up to the house. Mom did make it up and down once a day, but by the end of the week she was tired, forgetful, and a bit loopy. I was warned of that, as well. The loopy thing.

I remember the first time she did something troubling. It was probably back in 2003, when she still lived in California. I took her up to Farmer's Market on Fairfax. Mom had gone there when she was in high school. We went to Dupars for dinner; or rather for the nostalgia, as the food was sub-par. The rest rooms were located out in the market stalls, and Mom left to go use it. Nearly ten minutes passed and she had not returned. I went out and found her wandering off toward the parking lot. It shocked me to realize she wasn't sure where she was, or maybe how she got there, or with whom. Today it shocks me to think I'd let her out of my sight.

That's one of the inevitable tragedies watching someone fade. You get used to it, bit by bit, dying synapse by dying synapse, until you forget what they were like before they disappeared. Of course I can picture her as she once was. But I can't connect that intelligent, articulate woman to the frail, senile old lady at the dinner table. Mom once critiqued a movie as 'lacking verisimilitude.' Now she struggles so much to find the words that she often elects not to talk. Or she isn't even thinking in big words. She's off somewhere.

The French phrase for senility is retomber en enfance, which translates to "fall back into childhood." If old people fall back into their childhood, my mother must have been a sweet young girl. She's grateful, content, and very polite. She called Larry "sir," I guess because she met Larry long after her stroke, and she can't find a place in her brain to store his name. She's easily entertained: we have a giant cactus that has sprouted its swan song -- a thirty foot tree pod-- into the sky, and then it will die. Every morning mom marveled at it, as if it showed up overnight. And whatever I served her to eat, she thought it was "wonderful!" Maybe that's because one morning she got up before I did and tried to eat a square of candle wax).

Earlier in the week she was fine. We were praying for Larry because his job is sucking the life out of him. Mom offered up an eloquent prayer, full of multi-syllabic, lyrical words. It's like the place where prayer is stored in her brain didn't get touched.

Mom has felt nostalgic over her former life as in Costa Mesa. I called one of Mom's old friends, and took Mom down to see her at the end of the week. Two nights before, I showed Mom what her house looks like from a satellite, courtesy of Google Earth. I also showed her some street view shots and she was in awe. Complete awe!

But Saturday, the day we drove down, she seemed detached. I drove her past our old house and she didn't do much more than shrug. I wondered if it was too hard to look at it. But mom wasn't one not to cry. No it was somethign else. I took Mom to her friend's house and went to visit my favorite high school teacher a couple blocks away. I wasn't away more than two hours, but when I came to get Mom, her friend said "she seems confused, I think we wore her out."

Mom was sitting upright on their couch, eyes closed. I nudged her and she looked at me.
"It's time to go, Mom," I nudged her.
"I don't want to go," she replied. "I want to sit here."
Her childish response took me aback. "Are you too tired to walk to the car?"
"I'm just going to sit here," she stared at me.
"You can lay back in the car, I'll put the seat back."

I thanked Mom's friend for taking her to lunch and tried to be as casual about it, so as not to alarm her friend. She stood out on the parkway as we drove off. I saw her lift her hand to her mouth and I wondered if she was stifling tears.

Like maybe she was wondering if it was the last time she'd see Mom. I try not to think about it myself.

Mom seemed more detached and quiet after our trip down to Orange County. Less engaged. I found myself relating to her more like she was a child. But after she went to sleep I tried to describe my mother to Larry -- what she was like when she had full use of her mind and words.

I lamented that Larry never got to know her as she used to be. I lamented that I didn't get to have enough time with her as a peer. She's not the same person.

But soon enough a reply came to me, from God I can only guess: she IS the same person. Just because she can't express herself like she used to, or even think clearly, she is still the same person. It's up to you, Susan, to love her that way. Love her like she is, love her like who she is now is the summation of her soul, despite how much is hidden from my limited view.

It was a hard week for my sister's family, too. They have three cats, and one of them died of an infection. The cat was only 1 1/2 years old. Everyone loved Elsa but she was really my niece's cat: Emily is a beautiful 12-year old girl, sensitive, artistic and intuitive. She has a great capacity for empathy and caring, and she loves animals. And Elsa was her cat. So it's pretty sucky. Her brother Jonathan is pretty broken up about it too. He Emily are INFs, on the Myers Briggs test. Introverted, Intuitive, feeling. A hard day when a pet dies. Nancy and Phill are very supportive, and they know it's going to take time. Nancy cried and read this passage from Romans 8 at Elsa's funeral: The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope, that creation itself would be liberated from its bondage.

Just as I was writing this post and trying to be philosophical about my mom, Nancy called to say that mom's behavior has been kind of whacked since she got back on Monday: like sitting on the front porch for long stretches, saying she's waiting for the train to come get her. So, my mother's detached behavior, at least at the end of her week with me, wasn't usual. She may have had another mini stroke, or her senility has been exacerbated by fatigue. She doesn't have Alzheimer’s, but there are some similarities between it and vascular dementia. Patients need lots of regularity. So it's quite possible my mom won't ever make the trip out here again.

I asked my nephew Matt, who's almost 15, how he's dealing with Grandma's health. It affects everything, he said: where they can go, how long they can be gone away from home if Grandma is at home. And if she's with them, they have to leave when she gets tired. Now, if Grandma's lucidity has dropped and it doesn't improve, they can never leave her alone.

"Wow, that's a big load to carry," I replied.

"Well she's part of the family," he replied. "It's like having a brother with a disability."

"That's right, I agreed. She may not be able to talk well or think straight, but she's the person God sees and loves."

"Yeah. And God always teaches me something through things like this," Matt offered.

"So it's an AFGO for you: Another Freakin Growth Opportunity."

Mat laughed. "Yeah. Definitely."


Anna said...

I cannot even imagine the heartache.

Losing my mom at a relatively young age (hers, not mine -- I was 37, she was 67) was, to this point, the nightmare of my life. She had an aneurysm, sudden and inoperable, and oh, for my sake, would I ever want her back, in any shape at all.

I think your nephew is right.

And I know you hugged her a lot.

Wendy Melchior said...

the place where prayer is stored up didn't get touched....

I had a pastor who suffered from Picks Disease. At the end of his life, when he could not remember his wife, children or even his own name, he could utter two words: LOVE and JESUS. They had become an inextricable part of his person - way under his skin and name and temporal life.

Your mom sounds beautiful.

Karen said...

David is in Dallas this weekend visiting his mother who has late-stage Alzheimer's. It's sad to me that I never knew her before she started declining. At our wedding rehearsal dinner, she asked if it was "someone's birthday." It's so hard to see your parents decline. My mom died at 63 (when I was 37). I often wonder which is worse: losing your parent suddenly, or seeing them decline mentally and physically. I think both are really difficult.

Lisa Wheeler Milton said...

I'm sorry you are losing your Mom in bits and pieces. I can't imagine.

I think Matt has it right, at such a young age. I think it is so lovely she has family around her, loving her through this time.

(My Mom is dealing with some similar things with my Grandma, post-stroke. It's torn her up...)

And your poor niece. As a fellow INF, I'm sorry she's had such a tough week too. Ack.

You are all snug in my prayers. ox

Lori said...

That nephew of yours is quite a guy. This is a beautiful post, and so profound about how we should love people where they are, in whatever state. It reminds me a lot of what my friend Michelle (Coffeemom) learned about how to love that gaggle of kids who were difficult and didn't always reciprocate. God was showing her to just "do" for them and the love would be there. And it was. These AFGOs give us the chance to love better, to be more like Jesus.

Jana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maureen said...

While driving my Mom to the Dr. office the other day, she spent several minutes rifling thru the glove box and then looking at the registration. After a while I finally asked her what she needed the registration for....she answered that "well, if you get stopped you need it to be able to prove you own the car" and then she giggled as if she had made a joke. I just smiled and didn't persue it and she eventually put everything back in the box. Somedays, she is all there and others it's iffy. I quite literally 'feel your pain' and I'll be praying for you. Thanks so much for the post Susan, it was lovely.

ps. ditto on what Ted and Lori said about your

Steve said...


My heart goes out to you. I don't have words to express what needs to be said. All I can say is I pray for you, and I have a small story.

The day I changed my father's diaper, I realized my life was changed. And yet he served me for many years raising me. It was a small token repayment that I could repay him and serve God by returning the favor. My life, but more importantly, my perspective changed. I thank God for that opportunity. Many never get the chance or see the chance when they do. Thank you for sharing your life.


Gretchen said...

Wow. Susan.

This is an amazing, very well written post.

You and yours are in my thoughts and prayers....

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