FACE TO FACE WITH ALZHEIMER’S

You may recall that back on March 1, we accepted the #40Bagsin40Days decluttering challenge for Lent. We’ve been doing quite well and have come across some interesting and long forgotten items in the process. But, one that I came across yesterday really touched my heart and made me think.

It was a copy of the speech I wrote for an Alzheimer’s Candlelight Memorial Service, about a year after my Mom passed away. It brought back so many memories of that heartbreaking experience, but it was also eye-opening when I realize, as I stare my upcoming 70th birthday in the face, that my Mom had recently turned 71, when she and my Dad moved from Denver back to Sioux City and into our home because neither of them were able to live on their own any longer. The theme of that service was “Face to Face With Alzheimer’s” and I would like to share that speech with you all today. It’s as valid today as it was then as Alzheimers continues to strike so many families. Since this was written, my own mother-in-law and brother-in-law have also fought battles with dementia.

When Alzheimer’s Disease stole Jeannette Williams memory and then her life, she was no different from millions of others facing the same fate…except for one thing. She was my mother.

It started out with little things – lapses in memory – forgetting to call or send a card on my birthday – incidents that we might have found strange momentarily, but quickly shrugged off. She was hundreds of miles away and we only saw her a couple of times a year.

But, in January of 1995 my Dad’s diagnosis of terminal cancer brought my parents from Colorado back home to Iowa…and brought us all FACE TO FACE WITH ALZHEIMER’S.

I know of no other disease that focuses our attention so closely on the human face…because it is the eyes of the Alzheimer’s patient that reflect so much of what they’re going through. In their eyes, you may one day see confusion and the next day see blissful acceptance of their world. One day you see fear and the next day, child-like trust. Eyes that seem to be desperately searching for answers today may, tomorrow, offer an overwhelming outpouring of warmth and love.

Alzheimer’s Disease is often referred to as tragic – destructive – and devastating…and it is all of those things and more. But, over the years, I have come to realize that we can find another side to Alzheimer’s if we try…a side that softens the tragedy, limits the devastation and helps to provide the balance so necessary in maintaining a healthy outlook on life.

Nicholas Spark’s bestseller, “The Notebook”, chronicles the enduring love story of a couple, who in their golden years, suddenly find themselves FACE TO FACE WITH ALZHEIMER’S. It recounts their experiences as they adapt to her gradual loss of memory and function and his discovery that with acceptance of the changes and adaptation to the circumstances, he could, in some way, turn tragedy into triumph. He wrote…”I learned what is obvious to a child. That life is simply a collection of little lives, each lived one day at a time. That each day should be spent finding beauty in flowers and poetry and talking to animals. That a day spent with dreaming and sunsets and refreshing breezes cannot be bettered. But most of all, I learned that life is about sitting on benches next to ancient creeks with my hand on her knee and sometimes…on good days…for falling in love.”

I took my mother out to buy a birthday card and gift for my Dad shortly after they moved in with us. When we got home, I gave her a pen and suggested she sign the card. At that time, her speech and writing skills were waning but not gone. She took the pen and wrote Happy Happy. Love J…and the rest of her name just trailed off. She handed the card back to me and smiled broadly. When Dad opened the card he started to cry. It was so hard for him to accept what was happening to her and to see graphic evidence of her decline. But, looking back, I vividly see what he didn’t see…that as she wrote Happy Happy instead of Happy Birthday, she truly was Happy Happy at that moment. Happy that she was able to give him a card on his birthday just as she had for the previous fifty years that they had been married. And, I know that is true because when I close my eyes I can still see hers shining as she handed the card to me.

I had no idea when my parents moved in with us, to what extent Alzheimer’s had altered their lives but I quickly came to realize that my mother had very little ability to care for herself at all at that point. She did not know how to run her own bath water and get in the tub or how to select appropriate clothing and put everything on in the proper order. Since Dad was too ill himself to continue caring for her, I found myself in an abrupt role reversal situation. As I helped her into the tub that first time, she looked at me with the faith of a child, just as I must have looked at her decades before when the roles were reversed, and she said, “You’re a good one.” That scenario brought tears to my eyes at the time, but those words are one of my most treasured memories today.

The following year, after my Dad had passed away and my mother had moved to a nursing home, we had a birthday party for her. She really didn’t understand what was going on or how to open a gift or even what they were once someone else had helped her open them. But, when we sang Happy Birthday, her eyes lit up and she got a big smile on her face and she started singing along with us. That was a Happy Happy moment for her, in spite of everything.

Eventually, the progression of her illness brought her to the point where she could no longer command her mind or control her body. She was unable to feed herself or to walk without assistance. In a very short time, she reached the point where walking to the dining room, even with assistance, was too difficult and Hospice ordered a wheelchair for her. She began having difficulty eating and seemed to be forgetting how to swallow. Yet, even then, her spirit was indomitable. At that point, she seemed to make a conscious decision that enough was enough. Up to then, in spite of everything that was happening to her, there was a spark in my mother’s eyes that you couldn’t miss. The staff who helped care for her often commented on it too. Her face always lit up when we walked in and even though it had been years since she called me by name, I could feel her love by looking in her eyes.

When we went to visit her on Sunday, November 2, 1997, there was a chill in the air and a tiredness in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before. It was trying to snow and she was gazing out the window as if she were looking at something that the rest of us couldn’t see

On Wednesday, November 5, Mom laid down on her bed after lunch and went to sleep.

Losing my mother to Alzheimer’s Disease was a very painful experience…but the lessons of life that we learned from that experience offer a special pain reliever that, over time, has been very helpful This experience has taught us, first hand that devastating diseases do not lessen the value of human life…that a distressing end to life as we know it does not have to be a time for anguish and regret. There is value in human life at any stage or in any condition and that value is love.

Later.

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RANDOM THOUGHTS ON COMING OUT OF HIBERNATION

As terrible as it is, I realize that I have become lazy and unmotivated during this past winter. I DO NOT like winter and prefer to wrap up in my blanket and read, get on my laptop, watch movies or whatever…anything rather than go somewhere. That is exactly what I said I would never let happen when I retired. But now, hallelujah, spring is officially less than a week away. Time to shake off that lazy personality that I do not admire and spring forward. Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

I got back on the treadmill this week. I have one of those big milestone birthdays staring me in the face this summer and I intend to meet it head-on. My friend, Fred, used to always quote that TV commercial, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So, I best get moving again.

When we got back from Texas, I harvested the remainder of the herbs that I had planted at Christmas time, cleaned out the Aero Garden and, last week, replanted with lettuce and kale. It’s up already!! Aren’t you excited? Well, it’s a small amount, I know,  but, hopefully, enough to tide us over until we can plant outside.

Yesterday, I started the vegetables for this year’s garden. So many plants – so little space. Should be interesting. Now, once I replenish my supplies, I can get some flowers started. Can hardly wait until we can get outside and start planting. I know – that will be awhile. But, how uplifting to get the process started anyway.

Still working on my 40 Bags in 40 Days de-cluttering project. Got a little behind but did some catching up today and DEFINITELY WILL catch up and complete by the end of the 40 days. Today is the 15th day and I think I’m at 13 bags right now. Not too bad!

And, here’s a big one. I got back to my writing this week. In fact, this afternoon I even submitted an excerpt from what I have completed so far to a publisher for possible feedback. What are the odds? Probably not great, but better than if I didn’t even try.

Now, if I can just get motivated to finish our tax stuff and get it to the CPA!

Yep…I’ve definitely come out of hibernation and it feels good!

Later.

TWO HORSES

canstock16119189Working on my book today, I came across this blog post from July 28, 2010. It brought back memories of several co-workers whose cancer diagnoses came on the heels of my own. The story I included in my post is one I believe I found online. The author is unknown, but it carried a powerful message for me at that time. Both of these friends have since passed on, but the bond we developed through our cancer journeys is one I will always remember.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 28, 2010

Who knew? Who knew when I was diagnosed with cancer 9 months ago that it would just be the beginning of the cancer attack on my work family.

Last week, I asked for prayers for a good friend, just recently diagnosed. Today, another. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is such a devastating blow. You have all kept me going through your prayers and support. I would like to offer that same support to those who are close to me.

I came across this story the other day…

TWO HORSES

“When I was a young boy in Idaho, I remember there was a field with two horses in it. From a distance, each horse looked like any other horse. But, if you stopped your car, or walked by, you noticed something quite amazing. Looking into the eyes of one horse you would have discovered that he is blind. His owner had chosen not to have him put down, but had made a good home for him. If you stood nearby and listened, you would hear the sound of a bell. Looking around for the source of the sound, you would see that it came from the smaller horse in the field. Attached to the horse’s halter was a small bell. It let the blind friend know where the other horse was, so he could follow. As you stood and watched these two horses, you’d see that the horse with the bell was always checking on the blind horse, and that the blind horse was listening for the bell. He would then slowly walk to where the other horse was, trusting that he would not be led astray. When the horse with the bell returned to the shelter of the barn each evening, it stopped occasionally and looked back, making sure that the blind friend wasn’t too far behind to hear the bell. I like to think that, like the owner of these two horses, God does not throw us away just because we are not perfect or because we come with problems or challenges. He watches over us and even brings others into our lives to help us when we are in need.

Sometimes we are the blind horse, being guided by the little ringing bell of those who God places in our lives. And at other times we are the guide horse, helping others to find their way.” – Author unknown

How perfect!!

Later.

LUCKY SEVEN

img_4480I had my six month check-up at the Cancer Center yesterday…met my new oncologist….my third since this journey began. She’s good. She’s nice. I like her. She’s no Dr. Doddabele, but then no one is.

And, the good news is…everything looks great. My labs were good. My general health is excellent. There is no sign of cancer.

This was particularly great news because TODAY is my seven-year Cancerversary. SEVEN years ago today I started on a journey that changed my life forever. I am not going to make this a long. drawn-out post about all that has happened over these past seven years. I realize that, to the rest of the world, this is just another day. But Ken and I celebrate this day, October 22, every single year now. It represents another year of life that I have been given. It reminds me of just how far I have come and how much I have to  be thankful for.

I walked into the Cancer Center yesterday and was blown away by the number of people who greeted me with smiles and told me how great it was to see me again. As crazy as it sounds, it is like coming home once every six months. I spent so many, many hours there in the beginning and met so many kind, caring and talented people while on this journey. I could not have made it this far without them and without my friends and family. They were all so instrumental in supporting me and lifting me up so that I could reach this milestone today…seven years.

And, because it is so important to me and to Ken, I just wanted to take a few moments to share the excitement with the rest of you.

fightNow…just one more thing. My cancer diagnosis was totally unexpected. I had no idea when I showed up at Mercy Medical Center back on October 22, 2009, that there might be a problem. My doctor had no idea either. My cancer was found unexpectedly on a routine mammogram. This is breast cancer awareness month. If you, or someone you care about, is due for a mammogram, please get it done. Do that for me. Do it for yourself and everyone you care about. It could save your life. Take it from one who knows.

Later.