Cindy La Ferle on January 29th, 2012
All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. ~John Berger
Sometimes I have to rely on the lens of memory to see her as the true beauty she once was.
Waiting for the occupational therapist to arrive, my widowed mother is slumped in a chair in her new assisted living apartment. Her naturally wavy gray hair is long overdue for a good cut, and the navy stretch suit she’s wearing is at least a size too large. She looks older than her 81 years.
Mom doesn’t seem to care, which is totally unlike the woman she was before vascular dementia began devouring her pride, her self.
Not long ago, she was the sort of woman who wouldn’t be seen anywhere without a fresh application of her favorite Estee Lauder lipstick.
Not surprisingly, she’s confused and miserable in her new surroundings. She spent a week in the hospital at the end of last year, then another four weeks at a nursing rehab center. She wants to go back to her own condo — now — but I don’t have the heart to tell her (again) that this will be her home for a while.
Working with the assisted living staff, I keep trying different things to distract her. I want to help my mother enjoy what’s left of her life; to earn back her approval. And I desperately hope to see a glimmer of happiness or a trace of contentment on her face. But as I listen to her litany of complaints and watch her struggle just to rise from her chair, I can’t help but wonder if the goal is out of reach.
A museum of her former life
After my visit, I drive across town to retrieve more of Mom’s clothing from her condo. As soon as I arrive, I wander each room tentatively, half expecting to find evidence of intruders. Or ghosts.
Gathering dust in her long absence, the whole place is as quiet as a mausoleum. A recipe box sits next to her blood pressure cuff on the kitchen table, exactly where my mother left them the day after Thanksgiving — the day I drove her to the emergency room. There are plates in the dishwasher and an old grocery list on the counter. With no one else living here now, the condo feels like a museum of my mother’s former life. And every piece of furniture is a relic of our family’s past.
Which is partly why I’m overcome by an urge to dig through Mom’s closet for an album of family photos dating back to her childhood in 1930s. At first, I tell myself that the photos might trigger some happier conversation with my mother at the assisted living residence.
But in reality, I’m the one who needs to be reminded of the strong, beautiful woman she once was.
An album of another era
Flipping through the album I’d been looking for, I pause at the sepia-toned photo of Mom when she was barely three years old.
I am always moved when I see photos of my parents as children. And while dementia has rendered my mother more helpless than ever, this particular photo shows her at her smallest, most vulnerable self.
In it, Mom is standing bow-legged in a sandbox behind the Indianapolis home of her beloved grandparents, the folks who took care of her while her newly divorced mother was at work. A source of shame in those days, divorce was rarely discussed openly in my mother’s household. Much later, she’d share stories of how her young father abandoned his new family — right before she was born — and how her grandparents helped support her mother during the Depression.
In the photo, Mom wears a swimsuit and a pair of beaded moccasins. Holding a tiny shovel and a rubber ball, she looks as if she were caught off guard; her smile is more of a question than a statement. Still, there’s the twinkle of determination in her dark brown eyes.
The dance of her life
Mom’s stepfather, who came into her life a few years later, was an amateur photographer. His devotion to his hobby, and especially to my mother, is evident throughout the photo album.
In one portrait, my mother is dressed for a dance. Her prom gown flaunts an artful confection of ribbons on one shoulder – a testimony to my grandmother’s talent with a needle and thread. Mom is also wearing a corsage, and I can’t help but wonder if my handsome, black-haired father had presented it to her just before the photo was snapped. (My parents started dating after they met at a Presbyterian church youth group in Detroit.)
Because the photo is black and white, I can only guess that her dress is white, or maybe a pale shade of blue. It’s likely that her lipstick and nail polish are deep crimson, as dictated by the film stars of the 1940s.
But there’s no denying that my mother looks gorgeous and happy in this portrait. The sweet promises of true love, her own home, and a secure family — all she ever wanted — are almost within reach.
It also occurs to me that this album of memories belongs with my mother in her new assisted living apartment, not hidden away in a closet that she probably won’t ever open again. So I pack the book in my car along with another bag of nightgowns and a new package of incontinence products.
The following day, when I reintroduce her to the album and its treasures, her eyes light up as if she’s seeing the photos for the first time. Her oldest memories rush forward — they never left her, of course — and she recites the names of all the beloved people and places in the vintage photographs. She pauses at a shot of her grandparents and spins another reverie of their beautiful Tudor home on the river near Indianapolis.
I’ve heard the stories many times before, with or without the photographs, but that’s OK. For the first time in ages, my mother is animated and smiling. And her beauty shines through. – Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on January 6th, 2012
Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou
Yesterday, while labeling my mother’s clothing and underwear, I had a surreal moment in which I felt as if I were moving another kid to college. In reality, we’re getting ready to transfer Mom to an assisted living residence, where she’ll soon have her own studio apartment.
Doug and I spent the past week moving pieces of Mom’s furniture (her apartment comes with some basics) along with decorative accessories, photos, clothing, TV, microwave, and toiletries. We also shopped for a bedspread and items for her kitchenette.
The new apartment looks traditional and beautiful — the style my mother is accustomed to — yet we know, deep down, that all the elegant things in the world won’t fool my mother into thinking this other place is superior to the condo she’s grown to love so much.
When Doug and I aren’t consumed by the moving process, I’m usually on the phone with a social worker or a physical therapist at the nursing center where my mother is undergoing rehab now. The social worker is concerned about my mother’s delusional behavior this week. Mom doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with her health — nor does she remember last month’s visit to the ER at Beaumont Hospital, which ultimately led to all of this. Sounding like Dorothy on a broken record, she just keeps asking to go home. To her real home.
While I know this move is inevitable and right, I still feel twinges of guilt for uprooting my mother from everything that matters to her.
And I don’t know how I’d survive the stress without Doug, the world’s absolute-best husband. It breaks my heart a little, too, when I remember that Doug plowed through a similar scenario less than two years ago when his late father (who had Alzheimer’s) had to be moved several times until he and his mother found the right nursing home. (Ain’t midlife grand?) Doug’s experience with lease agreements and medical/legal paperwork alone has been invaluable, not to mention his willingness to sit with me and write my mother’s name on dishtowels and socks with a permanent marker.
The big move from the nursing center to assisted living is scheduled for Sunday. What a long and winding road it’s been. While I’ll be relieved to get my mother in a safe place, finally, I know there’s a boatload of emotional work ahead of me. Mom will need time and patience to adjust. And so will I. -- Cindy La Ferle
– Top: Our family with my mom on Christmas night, at Woodward Hills nursing center cafeteria. My mother has been recovering at Woodward Hills following a week at Beaumont Hospital last month. Bottom photo: A detail from Mom’s new apartment at a local assisted living residence. –
Cindy La Ferle on November 1st, 2010
The art of living lies less in eliminating our troubles than in growing with them. ~Bernard M. Baruch
I won the book this summer, but it sat unread for weeks, buried on my nightstand under a tall stack of novels and review copies. Joy No Matter What: Make Three Simple Choices to Access Your Inner Joy, by Carolyn Hobbs, sounded like a delightful read, but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to crack it open.
Overwhelmed with concerns about my widowed mother’s health, I’ve been feeling more anxious than joyful lately.
Mom lives alone in a condo, about 10 minutes from my house. Up until this fall I’ve felt reasonably confident that she was capable of living independently. And she was, for quite a while. But my mother’s early stage dementia — which was officially diagnosed by a neurologist over a year ago — has moved to the middle stage, and her doctors have put me on alert. Right now, I’m filling out the paperwork for an in-depth geriatric evaluation that will, hopefully, lead to the help and advice I need to make the right decisions for my mother. (Including when to take away her car keys.)
Meanwhile, as her sole caregiver, I worry a lot. And as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I’m swimming against an undercurrent of resentment.
So I happened to thumb through my copy of Joy No Matter What last week, and discovered that “resentment” has its own chapter in the book. And what I read was exactly what I needed to consider.
“Resentment steals joy like nothing else,” writes author Carolyn Hobbs. “It cheats us out of wholesome loving contact with those we love. It destroys perfectly good relationships.” As Hobbs points out, it can also negatively impact our health. Thankfully, she offers some solutions, and one in particular has really helped.
“Writing your resentments down on a piece of paper is a great way to acknowledge them to yourself,” Hobbs advises. “Don’t hold back. The best way to make resentments conscious is to totally indulge them.”
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing personal stories for years, the very thought of recording how I feel about Mom’s dementia — even privately — seemed disloyal and cruel. So I had to force myself to sit down and make a list of all the things I “resented” about her condition and how it has marred our once-happy relationship.
For starters, I admitted that my mother’s dementia has hijacked my peace of mind as well as some of the freedoms of my newly emptied nest. I listed the frightening, paranoid phone calls I get from her several times a week, throwing my normal routine off course. I wrote about how my mother expresses little interest in my life — and how most of our conversations revolve around her health and anxieties. I even tallied all the hours I’ve spent in doctors offices for her countless medical and dental appointments. I wrote about how I resented dementia for blurring the quality of Mom’s elder years, and for building a wall between her and many of her oldest and dearest friends.
Lastly, I listed the guilt I battle daily for harboring all this resentment and worry.
Of course, I will never share this list with my mother. But facing up to my darker emotions has helped me find some relief. Examining the issues that trigger my anger and sadness, I can begin to move ahead and ultimately find the patience required of all care-givers. Most of all, Hobbs’ technique has led me to understand that, deep down, I’m grieving the loss of my real mom. I’m grieving the loss of the mutually supportive relationship we had before the dark brush of dementia rendered her childlike and needy.
Once in a while, I get a few glimpses of my old mom — and I savor them while I can.
Two weeks ago, for instance, Mom phoned to ask about a doctor’s appointment on her calendar. During the conversation, I mentioned that Doug and I were celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary that evening. My mother, who always remembered family birthdays and anniversaries, had totally forgotten this one. “Oh my, I had no idea you’ve been married 30 years!” she shouted into the phone, struggling to process the oversight. But an hour later, she drove over to our house with the most beautiful flower arrangement I’ve seen — a wild assemblage of deep-violet carnations, burgundy roses, and cabbage flowers. The card read, “Happy Anniversary, Love Always, Mom.”
Every day, I remind myself that the overriding emotion I’m really feeling for my mother is love, not resentment. Despite the fact that she can’t recall things I’ve told her the day before, she never forgets that I’m her daughter, and she knows I’ll do my best to get her through this, no matter what. — Cindy La Ferle
– Photo above: My mother on her 80th birthday in September this year. The photo in the foreground is my mother’s high school graduation portrait –