Preparing for the Journey

I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.

Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.

Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.

I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.

There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.

This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.

We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.

JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.

On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.

We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.

Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.

I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?

I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.

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The Changing Mind

When my mother died in 1984, Dad saw the light. He’d been asleep in the chair next to Mom’s hospital bed when she passed on. My sister Jo Ann was sitting with her as she left this place for the next. When Jo Ann woke Dad it took just a moment. In that moment he saw that bright light that some speak of. I’ve always believed that he watched Mom walk on. It was earlier that day that he’d gone to the chapel and changed his prayer. Before that he’d always prayed that Mom’s cancer be healed. That day he accepted that her time was done and prayed that she be at peace.

I’ve often wondered about the connections between the physical and the spiritual worlds. How are we called? How does the connection speak?

Now, my Dad is 91 and his mind is changing. The way he speaks of the world is different. Dad has always seen himself as less intelligent because he didn’t finish school. In today’s educational system, I wonder if he’d been taught to read differently and had a different outcome. Dad grew up, in his early years, speaking Luxembourgish at home and didn’t speak English as his primary language until he was at school. It had to be tough to step in to a learning system and try to learn in a whole new language as a little boy who just wanted to be out on the farm running around and helping his dad. Then his dad left. Grandpa died in August of 1935. It had to be traumatic for Dad. I remember the story. They were out in the field. Grandpa was back on the hay wagon and Dad was driving the horses. Grandpa called out to him “Slow those horses down! You’re killing me back here!” Later that day Grandpa had what seems to have been an unrelated appendices attack. He was taken to the hospital and never returned. Grandpa was Dad’s hero. I wonder how that experience continued to impact who Dad became.

I know that some years later Dad was working on a farm. He skipped work one day. On that day the farmer’s child was playing where they shouldn’t have been and was hit by a truck and killed. Dad spoke about that event with sorrow and guilt. He told us how had he gone to work he would have been in that truck. He always believed that he would have seen the child and they wouldn’t have been struck and killed. There’s nothing to prove that one way or another. It’s just something he carries with him.

I’m thinking about this all as Dad’s mind changes because of some of the things he’s saying. He mentioned several times that he needs to go back to work, that he’s been gone too long. He gets worried about not getting to his job or sometimes he talks about getting back to school.

I find myself wondering if he’s unconsciously planning for his own journey. Is this how he’s preparing to go back to be with those he used to know? It’s a land of confusion. He doesn’t know this world fully anymore, nor does he belong to the next yet.

He’s not the same as he once was, but having this long process of goodbye tells me how gifted we are. Right now his dementia is a largely a gentle confusion. He gets lost and sometimes frightened, but not angry much yet and he generally knows family and friends or if he doesn’t he at least knows that they’re good people and probably someone he did know.

I don’t get to see him much, living a state away. But, he still recognizes me on the phone and other family see him almost every day. Sometimes I am near tears after talking with him when he’s confused or having a hard time with his phone and struggling to hear me. But, I feel so grateful, so proud to be his daughter. He is, to me, the symbol of strength and so wise.

As his mind changes, it seems more words of Luxembourgish may be slipping in again too. He always said he couldn’t speak it, but he could. He’d slip into it with friends. Now, sometimes a word slips in here or there to describe another’s behaviors. I don’t know the language at all, but can get the idea when he speaks of someone who talks too much or something like that.

The mind is interesting place. It is both sad and a great and joyous gift watching Dad’s mind taking him back to his younger days. I’m not sure that this story has gone anywhere, but it needed to be written to help me think things through. Thank you for reading.

Transitions

I had a dream a few days ago.  It’s that time of year when the dreams come to the surface and I have to ask myself where the stories are coming from.  It’s strange sometimes being a white girl who’s had the good fortune of having traveled with traditional Anishanaabe people.  It makes the questions much tougher, the more you know about yourself the more questions that you have sometimes. 

Anyway, in my dream I’d gone home and was visiting my 90 year old father and while there he passed on in my arms.  It wasn’t a nightmare, not at all.  In the dream, I got to say my goodbyes, watch the life leave his eyes, and hear the death gurgle as I lay his head down on the pillow.  It was gentle and it was ok.  He was ready to move on and see those who he misses and hasn’t seen in many years. 

It’s a strange thing to have a dream like that.  Dad is still kicking.  I talked to him later that day, told him I love and that I see him in my siblings and my nieces and nephews.  I think perhaps the dream was a reminder to let him know that even when he’s gone, he’ll still be here.  We won’t forget him.  He has made all the difference in our lives. 

Still it’s a hard time.  Dad has been graced with good health and a strong mind for most all of his life.  In his ninth decade he’s slowing and his mind isn’t working as it once did.  I find myself wondering how to deal with this.  I want to go home and see him for the holidays and at the same time I want to see the man that I knew when I was growing up and he’s gone. 

The man who taught me so much no longer recognizes some of the people and places that he’s known for years some days.  He doesn’t have Alzheimers or anything like that or at least nothing has been diagnosed.  He has old age. He knows that his mind isn’t working as it used to.  He misses his memory and his cognitive capabilities.  As his mind leaves, it is almost as if who he was is already dying while his shell remains. He is getting to mourn his own death while we watch it together. 

I am reminded that death is not all about sadness.  It is about a transition to the next phase.  I wonder how this transition goes?  How do I simply sit with this both feeling the sadness and being open to the joys.  I suspect that there must be joy and other feelings too.  It’s just a question of feeling them.  


Snapshots and Goodbyes

Somewhere in the stacks of photo albums and boxes of loose pictures that fill my life there is a photo of me at probably about four years old. I’m wearing a red shirt with sailboats, blue pants, and I suspect my saddle shoes though I don’t think they were visible in the picture.  My hair is a mess, but that’s been true since I was two and it started to appear on my head.  My head is tilted back and arm outstretched, reaching up to embrace my Dad who’s smiling down at me as I’m sitting on his lap at the kitchen table.  

I found myself thinking about that photo again last night after talking with my sister JoAnn.  She’d called to see if I’d talked with Dad lately.

Dad was probably about 47 in that picture, my age now.  He was living a full life.  He worked hard between his job at the power plant, farming, selling seed corn, raising a family, and just trying to live the life his beliefs told him was right and good.  He also had a lot to smile about good friends, good family, a good life all in all. 

He still has a lot of those things at 90.  Some of the family is gone, but we’ve added a lot more too.  Many of his friends have passed on, but some are still here and some of the children of others remain and still care about him. He is a lucky one to be surrounded by caring people.

So, why thinking about the photo? Well, JoAnn called to ask how Dad was doing when I talked with him.  We’ve been lucky for a long time.  Too many people these days watch their parents slip away into other worlds of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Until recent years, Dad was both mentally and physically doing really well.  It’s probably only been in this past year that he’s begun his journey to saying goodbye. 

Physically, he’s doing well for 90.  He uses a walker, but hey he’s walking. I can only hope for that at his age.  But memory is getting hard.  It’s tough to recognize the time of the day or night sometimes he needs a reminder about coming to meals.  He still loves to visit and play cards.  It takes a little while to get back into the game and remember the things that once came almost naturally like shuffling. 

It’s little things here and there.  He has a great home with wonderful staff who watch over him, family, and friends who visit almost daily, and my sisters and their families who take care of his needs from day to day.  I guess it does take a village. 

Still, I think about that picture and ask myself, how will we say goodbye?  With the mental declines of aging it could be days or years, but it is a process of goodbyes that we have begun.  I suppose all I have is how Dad and I end each phone call with I love you and blowing each other kisses.  He hasn’t forgotten that yet.