Thursday, June 21, 2012

...aging and alzheimer's: fade out control, fade in shift

This past week Bill and I returned to our hometown, Dublin, Georgia, to see his mother. Miss Jean - like my mother and my late husband's mother, like too many I've loved - has Alzheimer's. Or rather, this bloody awful disease has her. She has cycled from confusion to paranoia into silence during this last year. Her few words are, for the most part, confused, although moments of clarity arise unexpectedly. She is still at home inside her frail body but she rests so very, very close to a gaping door that leads to a mute and solitary journey. 

This now fragile lady has fallen three times in recent weeks. She's had hip surgery, followed by a serious infection that left her weak and more confused. In the days following surgery, she was able to take one hundred and fifty steps at a time. But in the intervening weeks, all progress was lost. While realistic about her prognosis, we know that immobility will cause her greater suffering as endless days in a chair break down her body. So Bill and Bonnie coaxed and cajoled and confronted roadblocks to her recovery. Meds that left her groggy were discontinued. Bill treated her daily. The first day, she couldn't stand. By the end of the second, with several arms holding and lifting, she made five brief upright attempts. On Sunday, she grabbed hold of her walker and walked a bit, then repeated this on Monday and Tuesday.

One of my favorite books is Clyde Edgerton's Walking Across Egypt, the story of an elderly woman who takes to heart a sermon about "the least of these" and takes in a juvenile delinquent. Set in the south that I knew as a child, the book evokes powerful memories. The characters lived down the street and around the corner from us. Several were close relations. As one who has often wandered in the wilderness like the lost tribes of Israel, I can relate to Edgerton's tale. The title ran through my mind several times during our too-brief visit as we joined Bonnie in a walk with Miss Jean across her personal Egypt: a difficult, confused journey through a foreign land. 

Leaving was bittersweet. We wanted more time. With Alzheimer's, what slips away first is the most recent and what remains freshest is that which came earliest in life. Miss Jean now lives in another decade - which one, we aren't sure - and everyday the clock continues its backward sweep.  If we are granted another visit, we don't know who we will find. But once again, we left with hugs, with one more glimpse of Mother. How precious when our first and last steps of life are made in loving arms. The dance of grace and shift continues.    

Friday, June 8, 2012

...wants, needs and a good rationalization

photo by Celeste Bracewell 2012

According to the sign in the Napa store window, all you need is love and a bottle of wine. Just around the corner, though, is a confectioner's shop. The words of Charles Schulz return: "All you need is love. And a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."

Need. What a powerful and abused word. I listened to an interchange in the grocery store recently. Not voluntarily. I was blocked by carts in both directions, a captive audience to a two-year-old's temper tantrum. The mother felt that reason alone would prevail. Bless her heart. She didn't stand an ice cube's chance in Gulf Shores. The dialog went something like this:

Toddler: I want red cookies.
Mom:  Those aren't good for you.
Toddler ups his volume:  I WANT COOKIES.
Mom counters with nutrition: I'll get you good snacks with (I am not making this up) vitamins. These have bad dye in them. That's what makes them red. (Yes, this happened in Berkeley. Mom is obviously over-degreed.)
Mom tries diversion: We have healthy snacks at home. When you...
Toddler interrupts and takes it up a notch: I NEED COOKIES. I NEED THEM. I NEED THEM NOW. (I don't have larger caps but "NOW" was earsplitting. Any shriller, the word would have been audible only to dogs. I wouldn't wish this on any canine.)

I needed to escape. With a dexterity I did not know I possessed, I backed up between two carts and moved to the other side of the store in a flash. Shoppers miraculously parted like the Red Sea. Sadly the dialog continued long-distance but I will spare you the ugly details.

Every mother has experienced the "need" approach. I personally didn't opt for nutrition lectures nor, before you report me to some organization, did I swat or hit. If "no" didn't suffice, then I preferred immediate removal from the store to home with no treats until after a succeeding trip that demonstrated some delayed gratification skills. No reason to be other people's problem. 

According to family lore, I myself needed a doll at age three. In an era when toys arrived at Christmas and no other time except for a few games on birthdays, I saw Tiny Tears in the window one spring day and just had to have her. I asked. Mother said she didn't have any cash. Not to be out-maneuvered, I said, "You can get some at the bank." She said she didn't have enough in the bank. My last effort: "Write a check." I was either precocious with regards to today's economic practices or simply three and our current national budget process should aim higher. Back to the doll fix, Mother was not moved. 

What I need is love. Mercy. Grace. Forgiveness. Good boundaries. Friends and family. Sustenance and shelter. What I want is, as my grandmother said, "a whole 'nother story". A few days of spring-cleaning time remain before summer legally rolls around. The closets are clean. I have time to glean my lists, to separate needs from wants. 

And I'm going to think about this just as soon I have a bite of dark chocolate. I hear the antioxidants are quite healthy, after all.

Monday, June 4, 2012 and again

Evening has settled. Limbs stir and their small green leaf stars dance in the dusk. "Appalachian Spring" plays softly inside. The room is infused with garlic married to thyme, bay leaves and curry powder. Beyond the fence, a man, large and graceful, holds a tiny baby in his big arms and dances her to dreams. At the moment, three of us populate the universe. 

Within, a deep quiet. A long gestation, this birth. And I whisper "yes, yes" to the words of Thomas Merton carried since morning's first light. 

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.

...I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will have already surpassed myself.

Yes. Yes. Yes. 
I have lived these words. 
They are true.
I had to live them to know. 

I could send them to you.
Past the fence, over the big bridge, through the delta and beyond.
But you can't read these truths.
You will have to live them first.

Past the fence, over the big bridge, through the delta and beyond
You do not know that we pray for you.
We do. 
We will.

Hear this...
You are up to this journey.
Do not be afraid.
Take the next right step, then the one that follows.

When I am very old
I want you to sit with me
and we will say together
"Yes. Yes. We have lived the words."

The trees will sway.
And we will watch a woman swing her baby in her arms
while food simmers on the stove
and music plays.