A Grace of Alzheimer’s: a lesson in suffering

My heart was recently challenged by reading a book from the Heroes of Faith series – the biography of Watchman Nee by Bob Laurent. I was so moved and inspired by this man’s faith, his godly wisdom, and courage in the midst of persecution and trials of life greater than I will ever experience. So challenged was I by his life and teaching that I found myself yearning to learn more from him. I reserved two books written by Nee through my local library: “The Normal Christian Life” and “The Character of God’s Workman,” and am currently reading the later.

I take a book with me when I go to the gym each morning, having purposed in my heart to use this time to exercise my body and feed my heart, mind and soul too. I have come to treasure this precious time…an hour on an exercise bike is over before I know it. As I pedaled and read today, something in chapter 3 made me think of my dear mother.  In this chapter, Nee speaks on 1 Peter 4:1, regarding our Lord’s attitude toward suffering and its admonition for Christians to have the same attitude and mind as Christ in our various earthly encounters with suffering. Nee notes that many Christians who encounter trials in life find themselves side-lined, withdrawing from serving Christ. Nee challenges the Christian reader by saying:

“No one who serves the Lord may stay home during rain and go forth only after the sun comes out. If you have the mind to suffer, then you will work on in spite of privation, difficulty, pain, sickness, or even approaching death.”

I immediately thought of my mom when I read that bit today, causing me to reflect on some of the ways she handled the trials in life.

When she was faced with having to take early retirement from her nursing job due to budget cuts the county was facing, my mom rejoiced. Now she could serve the Lord more in her local church.

My parents’ ministry to their family also carried on – cancer, headaches, bad knees and all. Where most retired couples have empty bedrooms, my parents had a steady stream of children and grandchildren occupying those rooms. It didn’t matter if they were out of a job, or cash-poor students, there was a bed with clean sheets, and a fridge full of favorite foods.

Each time my Dad faced a cancer diagnosis (five different cancers in his lifetime), mom was by his side for his surgeries and treatments. She could have used that as a perfectly plausible reason to back out of her ministries, but she kept on serving in the church, working her ministries around helping him. She also encouraged my dad to persevere in his church attendance and ministry as long as he was able. Only the final debilitating scourge of sarcoma took my dad away from his volunteering as a handyman at his church, and as a driver and treasurer for Christian League for the Handicapped.

When my dad died, my dear mother grieved, but she didn’t wallow in her grief and discontinue her ministries. Quite the contrary! She and a friend who was also a recent widow set their minds and hearts toward forming a ministry to other widows and widowers.

As I look back over her numerous notepads and journals that I packed when she made her move from Milwaukee, I can see that she was aware her memory was failing long before it became noticeable to anyone else. If I read between the lines, I can see there was a certain amount of fear that came with the awareness of memory loss and where it might lead. Knowing that her memory was fading didn’t stop her from serving in her many ministries. Even when the disease reared its ugly head enough for her friends to take notice, she never said, “How can I possibly take on the Lord’s work when I can’t even care for myself?”

Though my mother certainly had a “mind to suffer” in whatever hard things life threw her way, there did come a time when Alzheimer’s dealt a life-altering blow. The day came when driving to church was no longer an option. Another day came when planning anything was an insurmountable obstacle. Then, a time when remembering names was an impossibility. Everything about life was changing and becoming very hard. Only then did her ministries begin to fall away – not because she wanted them to, but because it was time.

Even now, in this time of life “approaching death,” I see in my sweet mother’s life yet another “grace of Alzheimer’s” – the grace of Christ-like suffering.

 

“Jesus, Help Me!”

Even as my sweet mother’s memory slowly fades, one thing remains strongly present. Her faith in Jesus. Many times during the day (and night), I will hear her pray, “Jesus, help me.” She prays it as she walks from her bed to the bathroom, or as she tries to get her knees to cooperate with her as she travels from the kitchen back to her bed. Continue reading ““Jesus, Help Me!””

This Too Will Pass

I am fondly remembering when my children were small. So much energy and love went into making sure they were dressed, well fed, clean and safe. I mothered my children back in the days before baby monitors and wifi cameras helped monitor the safety of a sleeping child. I remember hesitating to even walk outside into the backyard to hang my laundry on the clothesline to dry, always wanting to be within listening distance of my sleeping babies.

Mealtimes with my little ones could be fun but, if I turned my back for an instant in our teeny-tiny kitchen, one of my children could spread his meal all over himself and the floor beneath before I could count to three. The other child made highchair sitting into a baby Olympic event going from being seated in her highchair to standing on the tray in record time.

Little stinkers.

I remember making an effort to make bedtime routine, but special. The process of getting ready for bed was the same every night for our two little kiddos. Baths. Jammies. Brush teeth. One favorite book (each child picked a book) and a Bible story. Then tuck each one into bed with plenty of kisses and hugs.

This weary mommy looked forward to bedtime, but our kiddos didn’t always stay in bed. Someone was thirsty, or hungry, or scared, or had to pee. “Can we read ONE more book, Mommy?”

There was always something.

Now, in this circle of life, it’s my sweet mother’s turn. Meal times can be a bit messy and challenging. She cannot be left unattended. And bedtime ritual is just as important for her as it was for my children. Soothing ritual brings a small measure of security to her sometimes frightening world living with memory loss.

I try to get mom to wind up her coloring and activity about an hour before I want to settle in for the night. I get her toothbrush ready for her and make the suggestion that she brush her teeth and use the bathroom. I get her tucked into her bed and say our goodnights, “I love yous,” and turn off the lights.

Before I can settle into a movie with Wayne or a project on my laptop, I hear Mom’s walker scootching and clunking down the hall. In fact, right now, as I write, she’s up again even though she went to bed not more than five minutes ago. This will go on four or five times (sometimes more than that) before she’ll settle in for the night.

Sometimes she’s hungry. Sometimes she’s just confused and wondering what she should be doing now. Other times she’s worried about where her money is or when she will have to move some place else.

It’s always something.

Just like the young mom caring for a little one who just can’t stay in bed, the caregiver of an elderly parent gets weary too. But tonight I’m remembering how sweet it was so many years ago to wearily carry my pajama-clad little ones back to bed, and give them one more hug and one more assurance of my love. As exasperating as it may have been, the very last time I carried each child back to bed came when I wasn’t even aware it was the last time. It so soon passed.

As a daughter and caregiver, I am fully aware I am now doing the same thing for my sweet mother. I can guide her back to her bed, tuck her in once more with my tender assurances of my love for her, knowing full well that the last day will come when I least expect it, and this time with my mom will too soon pass.

Singing in the Rain

I’m a hummer. It probably stems from the fact that I love music, but can never remember all the words to a song. So, I just hum.

Not always, but often. I hum when I’m driving, when I’m walking through the grocery store, when I’m in the garden, or even doing a mindless home-making task.

Sometimes it’s a familiar tune – maybe a tune I heard on the radio or sang in church. A song that just gets stuck in my head and my heart. Sometimes I even catch myself humming the little ditty that my dryer sings when it’s finished drying my clothes. Other times it’s just a little nonsensical tune I make up in my head. Continue reading “Singing in the Rain”

A ‘Grace’ of Alzheimers: Leftovers

I like to do a bit of cooking and puttering in the kitchen in the first part of the week. I may even do a bit of baking. But, unless we’re expecting company, my fun in the kitchen only lasts until Wednesday or Thursday. That’s okay though. Weekends are made for leftovers. Continue reading “A ‘Grace’ of Alzheimers: Leftovers”

Disappearing Friendships

I caught a glimpse of an old friend at the gym today. I don’t think she saw me pedaling away on an exercise bike while she attended a nearby group exercise class. My face immediately smiled when I saw her, then my heart sank with sadness just as quickly. You see, my friend had walked out on our friendship a few years ago. I never understood why.

I still don’t.

I’m usually pretty timid and non-confrontational – but, as I pedaled, I imagined myself boldly giving my old friend the “what-for.” How could she just leave? Never look back? Never say good-bye? Never again tell me that she loved me and cherished our friendship?

Of course, I didn’t really say it.

Today’s ‘disappearing friend’ experience made me wonder about the friends and family who ‘disappear’ from my mom’s life in her world living with the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s. As her memories fade, recollection of friendships forged over many years vanish too. Some of her dear family and friends still send cards. She loves to receive them in the mail (and will read them over and over again, each time as if it is the first), but she really can’t remember the person who sent the card. Sometimes a tiny glimmer of recognition glistens in her eyes if I pull out old pictures, or show her that friend’s photos on Facebook, or retell a story she once told me about this friend.

Not a care in the world when you’re coloring!

Alzheimer’s is cruel. But, I’m thinking it may also be a form of grace in old age. You see, my encounter today with my own disappearing friendship brought up lingering feelings of deep hurt and resentment, highlighting my own need to exercise forgiveness in relationships. With Alzheimer’s, my momma’s hurt feelings last only for a moment. Then she picks up a coloring book and her colored pencils and the hurt just vanishes.

Why “Momma”?

An old friend recently noted that I refer to my mother as “Momma” in my writings. She wondered whether my mother would prefer to be called “Mom”.

I’m not really sure why I refer to her as “Momma” in my writing, other than it being a term of endearment between us. Most of the time, when I greet her, I say “Hi Mom!” I’ve never really noticed, but would venture to guess that I usually call her my ‘mom’ when I’m talking about her with someone.

‘Momma’ is a decidedly southern term of endearment; two sounds hitched together – Mom+ma. I use the less common spelling of Momma, but you’ll more often see it as Mama – also two sounds hitched together – Ma+ma.

‘Momma’ is not used much here in Wisconsin where I’ve raised my own children. My daughter calls me “Mom” and my son calls me the even more casual, ‘Ma.’ I answer to both without preference for one or the other.

Though my mother has lived in Wisconsin since 1955, she was actually born and raised in West Virginia. In my mother’s world living with Alzheimer’s, her years in Wisconsin have all but vanished along with her ‘accent’ and all but a few words and phrases from her upbringing. In her mind, she is still living in West Virginia. As I recall, most of my cousins call their mothers “Mom,” which to my northern ears sounds more like a slightly drawn out “Mawm” than my “Mahm”. But, oftentimes, when talking about their mothers, my cousins also say “my Momma” too. So, I think it is safe to say it was a pretty common term of endearment for mothers in her earlier years.

All that to say, I don’t really know why I sometimes call her Momma. I just do. It’s the term I use when it’s just the two of us. I hear myself call her that when I tuck her in at night and say “Goodnight, Momma. I love you. See you in the morning.” To which she will usually reply, “Goodnight. I hope I’m here in the morning.”

As I head upstairs to bed each night, I often think, I hope you’re here in the morning too Momma. But, if you’re not, I know you’re in a better place – a place where you long with all your heart to be.