Remembering my mother

It has been one long year since my mother died. On the first anniversary of her death, September 13, I am reposting the eulogy I wrote for her. In loving memory of Carlesta (Geisel) Gullion, the following was read at her memorial service on September 16, 2014.

CarlaheadshotWhen you’re deep in the trenches of caring for a parent who’s battling advanced dementia, it gets harder with each passing year to remember the heart, the core, of the person he or she used to be.

The mother who drove you to the pediatrician becomes a child who requires an ongoing series of medical appointments and countless trips to the hospital. The father who once provided wisdom and advice can no longer make decisions about his own finances or even choose a brand of toothpaste. The mother who once cooked and hosted holiday dinners can barely hold a fork to her own mouth.

So, you find yourself at war with your own conscience, fighting sadness, anger, pity, denial, fatigue, and frustration. And then you feel guilty for feeling all of those feelings — because you remember that your mom or dad would never in a million years want to send you on this part of the journey.

Of course, nobody is ever truly prepared for The Phone Call — the final phone call that carries the mixed blessing. The phone call that announces Mom or Dad is finally at peace or “at home” in a better place. Like everyone else who loses a parent and goes about the somber business of making funeral arrangements, I used the time between that phone call and this funeral to reflect on earlier memories of my mother.

Baby 4

And for the first time in a while, I forgot about my mother’s debilitating illness and remembered instead the beautiful heart and generous soul of Carlesta Gullion – the person my mother was before she lost herself and her memories to vascular dementia.

All at once, my feelings of sadness, guilt, and frustration gave way to a much larger emotion that has guided and comforted me throughout these past few days. That emotion is gratitude.

Looking through sepia-toned photographs of my mother as a young girl, I remembered many of the stories she shared with me about her difficult childhood.

Carlesta’s father had abandoned her own mother before she was born, and later on, her mother and stepfather both struggled with alcoholism. But there were happy times too, and Mom shared those stories just as freely. She wanted me to hear about her maternal grandparents, who took care of her during the Great Depression while her mother worked. In her teens, Carlesta reconciled with her father — and even grew close to her new stepmother.

Mom also loved to tell me about her loyal collie dog, Sonny, and the carefree times they spent playing in her grandparents’ Tudor house by a river in Indianapolis, her hometown. And she often shared stories of her beloved Irish grandfather — a watercolor artist and a great character whose creative talents she inherited.

Recalling the early challenges she had as a kid, I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful for the happy childhood my mother gave me. She was determined to create the stable home and family she’d never quite had – and I have always been proud of her for accomplishing that.

MomXmasAmong my earliest happy childhood memories are the times I sat next to Carlesta on the living room couch, or in bed, with a picture book propped in my lap. We’d read aloud and laugh through the sing-song stories of Dr. Seuss, who was a distant (Geisel) cousin of Mom’s. Thanks to my mother, I learned to read before I entered kindergarten, and literature became a guiding light throughout my youth.

I’m grateful that she chose to marry Bill Gullion, who was the dearest and most reliable father any child could hope for. My dad was born to a sturdy pair of Scottish immigrants, and they were the anchors of my mother’s new family in Detroit.

I like to think that the fine example set by my parents’ marriage – which lasted 42 happy years until my father died – has been a loving influence in my marriage to Doug La Ferle, the love of my life, and my rock.

Carlesta often told me she couldn’t have asked for a finer son-in-law than Doug. She was proud of Doug’s talents as an architect and artist, and she regarded him as her own son.

Likewise, Doug helped me care for her as if she were his own mother. During Carlesta’s long illness, there were many times in the hospital and in the nursing home when Doug gave her the comfort and reassurance she needed after I had lost patience as her caregiver. Surely there is a special place in the heart of heaven for spouses like Doug.

As an only child, my mother also had a close relationship with her sister-in-law, Chris Gullion, and the two of them took turns hosting many holiday dinners over the years.

Baby1Having come from such a small family, my mother frequently reminded me that good friends are “a family one chooses.” When I was growing up, she often advised me to choose my friends carefully. Teaching by example, Carlesta maintained many of her longtime friendships, some dating back to high school. She was also a member of a stock club, PEO, and the Starr House Guild.

I am deeply grateful for all the times my mother helped me become a mother after my son Nate was born. Carlesta loved her grandson more than the world, and I don’t think she ever said “no” when I asked her to babysit him. Just as she had done for me, my mother created many happy memories for Nate, and she couldn’t have been more proud of all his accomplishments.

Such was her love for her only grandchild, in fact, that she became a Notre Dame football fan while he was a student at the University of Notre Dame. Mom wasn’t remotely interested in sports before then – so this was a testimony of their relationship. Going through Carlesta’s papers recently, I found dozens of cards and letters from Nate, which she had lovingly saved, in just about every drawer in the house.

My mother worked as a freelance color artist for several photography studios — including Royal Oak’s Bill Williams — throughout my childhood and teen years. She was among the first “work-at-home” moms in the late 1950s and ‘60s, setting up a home studio in our family room.

-35Later on, when I began my own career as a freelancer writer, I had my mother to thank for teaching me how to strike a balance between work and family. What a role model I had! I remember coming home from school as a kid and finding my mother at work at her easel, leaning over her photographs and mixing her oil paints. She always had time to listen as I shared the highlights or low points of my days at school.

I am forever grateful for that too.

As I type these thoughts, it occurs to me that what defined my mother more than anything was her reverence for home.

Though it’s a small word with just four letters, “home” meant everything to Carlesta. Home was a refuge and a sanctuary. To her, the word encompassed the people inside its walls – both family and friends – as well as its gardens and furnishings. Inspired by our family’s many road trips to historic Williamsburg, Virginia, and New England, she collected antiques and decorated every room in the house with treasures from our trips.

With her gift for hospitality, she entertained with style and care. She brought beauty to everything she crafted, whether it was a birthday party for a large group or a planter on the front porch. Making a home was an art form.

Once dementia had incapacitated her, moving Mom out of her beloved Royal Oak condo and into a nursing home was, by far, the hardest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to do.

All said and done, of all the gifts my mother has given me – including the gift of life itself – I’m most grateful for that abiding love of home.

This occurred to me not long after I learned that she had died. At the time, Doug and I were on the last day of our vacation. As soon as we got the call (at 5:45 on Saturday morning) we packed everything as quickly as we could and headed down the dark highway back to Royal Oak. It was the longest drive I’ve ever taken, though I don’t think the reality of my mother’s passing had really taken hold in my mind.

But finally, as we turned down Vinsetta Boulevard and our own house came into view like a mother with arms opened wide, the tears came and I felt embraced by something I can only describe as boundless gratitude for my home, my family, and this community – the roots of which my mother had planted inside me years ago.

My father, who passed away in 1992, had always found comfort in the Bible passage (John 14:2), “My father’s house has many dwelling places.”  It was read at his own mother’s funeral. When Dad died, I asked a pastor to read that verse in the eulogy I wrote for him.

And so, with a full and thankful heart, I hope my parents have found their place together in the “house with many dwelling places,” and that they are, finally, at peace and at home.

After this eulogy was read by pastor John Miller, my son Nate La Ferle read my favorite poem by Celtic poet David Whyte, “The House of Belonging.” Please click here to read it. 

Carlesta Gullion’s obituary is posted here.

The caregiver’s guilt trip

BeachLike most caregivers, I struggle with feelings of guilt. Even when I’ve done my best to manage my elderly mother’s healthcare, I wonder if I could have — or should have — done more. Focusing on this topic, “The Caregiver’s Guilt Trip” is my new column in the September 7 issue of Michigan Prime. If you’re a caregiver, or know someone who is, I hope you’ll share the column. The magazine is delivered to subscribers of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. You can read it online here.

Broken-heart signals

At midlife, our hearts and bodies often become increasingly sensitive to things that no longer serve us.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

venusLong before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.

Not one of those appointments was for me.

Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mother’s care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed I’d driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year — yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.

Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Mom’s cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.

Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll — yet I was too frantic to notice.

The beat goes on and on

Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries — plus weeks of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.

Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk — even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.

Over and over, she’d ask: Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me … Why can’t I go home now?… When are you taking me home?

museBy August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own — including heart palpitations — and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound for no reason — even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.

It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day.

I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As Dr. Paul explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.

Taking versus giving

More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org). Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.

“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy trying to get in and be embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of The Wisdom of Menopause. “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.”

Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts — including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?

Of course, some relationships — family, especially — are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unfair demands on my time — or ignore my emotional needs — I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.

“When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.

Hearing the heart sounds

Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade — though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.

Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7.  Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.

I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted.  Mom still begs me to take her “home” — which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories — which rarely works for anxious dementia patients like my mother, but I keep trying.

Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family — which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years — years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points she might ignore at her peril.

It’s time to listen up. Listen to your heart.

The artwork in this essay — “Cycles of the Muse,” by Cindy La Ferle —  is featured in The Rust Belt Almanac, a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. Copies available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Mothering myself

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–