Cindy La Ferle on March 29th, 2013
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~Henry David Thoreau
To my Facebook friends: I’ve temporarily deactivated my Facebook account this week.
As many of you know, my mother fell and fractured her hip recently. She’s recovering in a nursing center, and I’m often called on to advocate for her. Meanwhile, I’ve received many thoughtful (private) Facebook messages that I’ve neglected to answer — and I apologize for those oversights.
At stressful times like these, I tend to function best when I pull back, turn down the noise, do a reality check, and spend some quality “face time” with my posse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. Last year I wrote an article about taking time off from Facebook, and was surprised by the hundreds of positive comments I received. That three-month break turned out to be one of the healthiest and most productive periods I’ve experienced in recent years — which is why I recommend short “retreats” from social media to everyone, from time to time.
But back to the present. When time allows, I’ll post a few essays here on the topic of dealing with elderly parents who suffer from dementia, knowing that many of you can relate to this ongoing midlife challenge. Thanks for your understanding — and I look forward to catching up soon. – Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on November 26th, 2012
Mother is a verb, not a noun.” ~ English Proverb
It’s going to take several days to recover from last week’s domestic flurry – a self-inflicted storm of floor washing, napkin ironing, furniture polishing, and grocery shopping. As most women would, I blamed it initially on the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I would be hosting out-of-town guests.
But the truth is, my out-of-town guests were my son and his wife – dear ones who’ve seen our home in its most chaotic state and are not particularly fussy.
As it happened, I wasn’t even scheduled to cook the big Thanksgiving meal this year. I knew we’d be taking my mother (whose vascular dementia is monitored at a nearby assisted-living residence) to dinner at a local restaurant. A culinary no-brainer.
And as for kitchen duty, my only obligation was to provide breakfast, lunch, or light snacks for our small family of four throughout the weekend.
So why all the fuss? Was it simply my old holiday anxiety rearing its annual, festive head? Or was I trying to impress my new daughter-in-law, who was spending the nights with our son in the guest room?
None of the above.
It wasn’t until my son pointed out that I was getting a tad neurotic about freshening the bathroom towels every half hour that I realized my housekeeping-on-steroids was another symptom of grief and mother loss.
Before I explain, bear with me while I spin through a Dickensian-style flashback of winter holidays past … Back when my mother was a busy commercial artist and homemaker who loved to entertain guests … Back before heart disease and dementia rendered her helpless and confused.
Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.
Back then, my mother would put me to work alongside her at the kitchen counter. Under her artistic direction, I baked cookies, rolled appetizers, and speared tiny cornichons with cellophane-ruffled toothpicks. Together we dusted and rearranged all the living room furniture. Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.
It didn’t matter if the visiting folks were my grandparents or my father’s coworkers; Mom and I channeled Betty Crocker, Julia Child or Martha Stewart. If the holiday guests were also spending the night (or more), Mom would throw the schedule into overdrive and put me on laundry duty. Cranking up the washing machine, she’d order me to gather every towel and washrag in the linen closet that “needed freshening up.” Yes, even the clean ones.
I’ll admit there were moments when I felt like Cinderella in her scullery maid phase. Even so, those domestic chores trumpeted the arrival of the holiday season. And now, they’re an inextricable part of the memories and traditions my mother crafted for our family — even when the world was crumbling around us.
In December of 1992, five months after my father’s sudden death from a heart attack, I didn’t want to think about Christmas. The very idea of hanging mistletoe, or clearing the dining room table for a “festive” meal, seemed like a violation of our family’s raw grief. It was my mother who convinced me otherwise, reminding me that Dad loved Christmas — and that he would have wanted us to celebrate for the sake of my little boy, who was barely seven at the time.
I believe, in retrospect, that sprucing things up for the holidays that year kept my mother from feeling totally engulfed by her loss. Cleaning, decorating, and cooking helped fill the unspeakable void while she made Christmas for the rest of us. Over the past five years, dementia has devoured that resourceful mother of mine, but only in recent months have I found the courage, and the words, to admit how much I miss the nurturing that only a mother can give.
And I know, now, that all the ridiculous furniture polishing and towel washing — my flurry of domestic fuss last week — was a way of mothering myself. Following Mom’s old example, I was cleaning for comfort and trying to recreate a lost sense of order. A memory of holidays long past. – Cindy La Ferle
–Original collage detail above: “Gathering In,” by Cindy La Ferle–
Cindy La Ferle on August 6th, 2012
Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.” ~Chili Davis
Doug and I just returned from a long birthday weekend in St. Joe. To be perfectly honest, my birthday (Saturday) felt a bit sad this time around, as if someone had let the air out of all the party balloons.
I suspect my blue mood had a lot to do with the fact that my mother totally forgot my birthday again this year. Of course, I’m not surprised. Mom’s dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer looks at the calendar I gave her, nor does she care what day or month it is. She still remembers her own birth date when hospital staffers ask her for it, but she can’t keep track of holidays and other special events — even when we write them down to remind her.
Not so long ago, before vascular dementia consumed her former, thoughtful self, my mother would call to schedule my birthday dinners at least a week in advance. And she’d always treat me to something special on a shopping trip we’d take together. Though I’ve learned how to deal with a new and difficult version of my mother, last week I found myself battling the same waves of grief I experienced on my birthday following my father’s death in the summer of 1992.
Watching our parents turn ill (or die) is a grim reminder of our own mortality — not exactly the frosting anyone would choose for her proverbial birthday cake.
It didn’t help that August 4th was blistering hot in St. Joe. And just before we left for dinner that night, a huge turkey vulture swooped down to perch in a poplar tree behind our house. It seemed like an awful omen of some kind. (Another vicious year ahead? Or am I reading too much Alice Hoffman?) Topping it off, a violent storm erupted while we were driving to a local restaurant for my birthday dinner.
Thankfully, my dark mood lifted with the brighter weather on Sunday. Doug and I spent a memorable evening on a gorgeous Lake Michigan beach, then rode the Silver Beach carousel after a casual dinner in St. Joe. (I chose the horse representing Michigan State, my alma mater.) Riding the carousel with my dear husband made me feel like a kid again, which is quite a feat, given that I just turned 58 years old.
Taking a long walk back to the car, the two of us watched the sunset on the beach. The majesty of Lake Michigan — my favorite lake in the world — reminded me that my problems are relatively small; that my mother’s dementia is part of a midlife journey that many others have traveled before me. Blessed with an incredibly patient and loving husband, I know I can handle any rough water ahead. And so turns another year. – Cindy La Ferle
Top photo: The sun begins to set on Lake Michigan in St. Joe. Bottom photo: Doug walks the beach.
Cindy La Ferle on June 2nd, 2012
The years teach us much the days never knew.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
An essay about moving my mother to assisted living will be featured Sunday, June 3, in the North and West editions of Michigan Senior Living. The magazine is included with The Detroit News and Free Press Sunday paper. “Moving Mom” was tough to write, given the sensitive nature of this painful transition, but I hope it brings comfort to others who’ve recently found themselves at the same crossroad with their own parents.
My friend and colleague, Claire Charlton, wrote a very informative feature on how to choose the right assisted living facility for senior care — and how to handle the emotional challenges. Look for it in the same issue.
For those with a special interest in this topic, here’s a link to an earlier column I wrote about dealing with my mother’s dementia before her move to assisted living. – CL
Cindy La Ferle on June 3rd, 2011
By isolating himself at Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t run away from life. He’d run toward it. Why couldn’t we leave our lives of quiet, digital desperation and do the same?” — Susan Maushart, from The Winter of Our Disconnect
Once in a while, we all need to unplug. Friends who’ve been visiting this site for a while know I spend less time hanging out here in the “Home Office” once summer arrives. Escaping outdoors — sans laptop — restores my spirit and makes me feel whole again. I’m ready to start this week.
As it happens, I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and A Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. It’s a compelling (and often hilarious) memoir detailing how Mausart, a journalist, and her kids made the difficult decision to live without technology for (gulp) six months. Using current research to back her premise, the author shows how limiting our use of technology, including social media, can enrich the quality of our lives and deepen what she calls “real-life” relationships. As soon as I’m finished, I plan to review the book in a column.
But I’m not totally unplugging this summer. Unlike Maushart, I don’t have the willpower to go for more than a week without checking Facebook, blogs, and e-mail. Through August, I’ll continue to post links to my newly published material; or I’ll rerun favorite (previously published) essays in keeping with the season.
Meanwhile, I’m still micro-managing my mother’s life, keeping a watchful eye on her dementia and health-care issues. Trying to find my balance in the midst of it all has been the toughest challenge I’ve faced in a long time. Whenever possible, I follow Thoreau’s sage advice to “Simplify, simplify.” Right now, things with Mom are relatively calm — and I am working to keep them that way.
When you get a chance, please fill me in on what you’re up to this summer … Will you be blogging more or less? Spending more time at the beach or in your garden? Planning a graduation party? Spending less time at the office? Please send me a cyber postcard before you unplug. –CL
– Top photo: My Japanese garden, a favorite backyard escape. Bottom photo: A clematis arching over the gate in our backyard. All photos by Cindy La Ferle. –