Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ugly Sweaters.....



"Please!  Can't you help me?  Get me out of here!" my mom pleaded as she tugged on the railing of the rented hospital bed.  And then she pointed, hand trembling, at the crimson red cardinal on a bird feeder just beyond her bedroom window.  "I wish I could fly away..." she said longingly.  All day long, she begged me to rescue her.  From time to time, I had to leave the room because it was too much to bear.

It had taken years, but we had finally arrived at this place.  My mom's physical body had totally betrayed her.  She was bed bound, trapped and imprisoned by the end result of an inopportune series of debilitating health issues, including surgeries for colon and breast cancer.  Her memory had faded almost completely.

At the time, I felt I was failing her because all I could do was be present, sitting on a chair drawn close to her bedside.  My own coping and caregiving resources were hanging by a thread.  Sheer exhaustion prevented me from being as fully engaged in her profoundly disturbing emotional struggle as I would like to have been.  What do you say to a loved one who has finally reached her final days, but is unable to grasp what that means?  Whatever words of comfort, whatever words of explanation, it didn't matter.  They were quickly forgotten a few minutes later.

Lots of great grandchildren sugar
Now, lest you misunderstand, my decade-long caregiving journey with my mom started out on a high note and stayed that way for the most part.  It was a shared adventure that made me feel worthwhile and useful.  Under normal circumstances, my mom was light-hearted, easy going and fun.  As we navigated her numerous unfortunate serious illnesses, we laughed a lot.  Trips to the doctor's offices were often "eventful."  Having become somewhat childlike, Mom would usually say whatever popped into her mind.  If she noticed a lady in the waiting room wearing a sweater she didn't care for, then of course, she had to comment:  "Look at that ugly sweater!"  Saying "Shh, Mom!  She can hear you!" made no difference at all.  Or she might decide to put her finger in her nose, declining my polite offer of a tissue with a big smile on her face.  More than once, I wanted to move to another chair on the other side of the room and pretend she wasn't with me.  Sometimes I seriously wondered if she knew she was putting me in awkward predicaments just for the fun of it....

She always forgot what her colostomy bag was for, then thought it was hilarious when I explained once again what was in there.  Speed car racing events were among her favorite TV programs .  Sometimes she watered her artificial flowers.  When I reminded her they really don't need water, she thought that was funny too.  Oh, and then there was the daily morning ritual helping her get dressed.  I'd get her all fixed up, everything matching and colorful, come back an hour later to find she had changed clothes.  I continually tried to hide one particularly frayed and snagged old grey sweater that I didn't have the heart to throw away, but she always mysteriously managed to dig it out and put it on.  (Yes, she had her own ugly sweater....)  Most of the time, it didn't matter.  But when we were expecting company, I know guests had to be wondering why I didn't buy her some decent outfits.

Mom lookin' snazzy
Of course, mom had not always been a mischievous and forgetful great grandma who delighted great grandchildren by tickling them under the chin saying she was getting some sugar.  She had been a beloved daughter, a fun sister, a faithful wife, a best friend of many, a concerned caregiver.  She made the best cheesecake in the world.  Talk about having a green thumb--amazing flowers and exotic plants would grow in dirt she left behind on her potting table.  She loved traveling, camping and desert rock hunting.  She was a top-notch bargain hunter.  I'm told she was quite the gal in her younger years--she enjoyed looking "snazzy" and throwing what was called back in those day "hen parties" with all her girlfriends.  She was a devoted grandma and mom.  I was the girl she always wanted, born eight years after my brother, the boy she always wanted.


Because dealing with dementia means living "in the moment" with the one afflicted, often I would forget the able-bodied and sound-minded individual that was my mom.  It was too easily overshadowed by the intense caregiving she required as she approached a great old age.  Had she been able to verbalize it, she would have wanted me and everyone else to be mindful of all that she had been and accomplished, now unrecognizable behind the fa├žade of  infirmity, wrinkles and failing memory.


The next time you look into the limpid eyes of an elderly, worn-out human being who may feel old and in the way, try to see beyond the frail exterior and search for the essence of the exuberance of youth and beauty, good times, love, values, experience, hopes and dreams, including the heartaches and scars of living that shaped that unique person.  It's still there underneath it all.  Even if someone has become debilitated or suffers diminished memory, you may find yourself surprised by their response to the depth of your perception.

Mom and her girl...me
I will never forget my mom's last words to me.  Her quality of life continued to ebb away and we arranged for her to be placed into a hospice care facility.  She had to be transported there by ambulance.  Surprisingly, that particular day, she became unusually alert and talkative.  Apparently she chatted to the attendant riding with her, saying who knows what.  I was afraid to ask....at least he wasn't wearing an ugly sweater.  When they placed her on a stretcher and wheeled her into the facility to her room, she was awake and propped upright.  I remember thinking how pretty she looked.  Before I left her room that day, she pointed at me and told the nurse, "That's my beautiful daughter!"

Mom suddenly fell into a coma-like state.  We lost the ability to reach each other.  And then she was gone, her God-given purpose in life on this earth fulfilled.  I hate to admit it, but it took me a very long time to finally throw away her favorite frayed and faded ugly grey sweater.


The sunset of life can be beautiful....

(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011