Using the Past to Improve the Present

In the last post, I described how I was able to use Mom’s love for keeping secrets to smooth the process of getting her to bed. That’s just one example of a miraculous phenomenon:

The past, even the less attractive parts of it, can be a powerful tool to gain our loved ones’ cooperation in the present.

Let me start by explaining how I think the keeping-secrets strategy worked. For most of my adult life, whenever Mom and I were together in a family gathering, she wanted me to come with her when she went to the bathroom. Back then she didn’t need my help. She just wanted to talk, to discuss things—usually inconsequential things—outside my father’s hearing. She did the same thing with my sister; we used to smile about it. I think talking “in secret” gave Mom a feeling of power. She knew things Dad didn’t know.

Unusual? Maybe. But it was a routine Mom and I practiced for years, without even thinking about it. And while I don’t know the science of where and why and how that routine was stored in Mom’s brain, I know from experience that if I told Dad in a firm voice he couldn’t come with us and then spoke in a whisper to Mom and took her arm, I could lead her to the bathroom or the bedroom or almost anywhere in the house we needed to go. Did it work every time? No. But it worked often enough that I began using other old habits and idiosyncrasies of Mom’s to smooth the rough path of Alzheimer’s.

Her green sweater, for instance. She wore it for probably twenty years, partly, I fear, because Dad begged her to get a new one. The fuzzy “pills” that covered it were the size of English peas. One shoulder seam had been mended so many times, the left side of the sweater was shorter than the right. Thank goodness for the distraction of mismatched buttons and raveling buttonholes. But—on difficult mornings, I could sometimes entice Mom to get dressed by adding the green sweater to the stack of clean clothes.

Another example: When I was a child, I could always count on Mom to have a tissue when I needed one. She was almost obsessive about having a pack of them close at hand. For a long time, even Alzheimer’s didn’t keep Mom from collecting tissues. She raided boxes at the doctor’s office and napkin dispensers at fast food restaurants. She folded her treasures with care and squirreled them away in the pocket of her slacks, in her otherwise empty purse, or in the already bulging pockets of the green sweater. Though this practice could be embarrassing, especially when Mom snatched a napkin from the table of some unsuspecting diner, it too proved helpful. If Mom grew angry for some reason when we were in public, I could grab a tissue from my purse and hold it out to her, saying, “Mom, do you want this tissue? I found it over there. Maybe we can find more.” The tissue claimed, or at least divided, her attention long enough to cool her anger.

Though Mom couldn’t seem to come up with the old habits on her own, they appeared to strike a comforting chord in her mind when we replayed them for her. Using even the irritating idiosyncrasies of the past, we were better able to handle the more severe problems of the present.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me….You are familiar with all my ways.       (Ps. 139 1,3 NIV)

Where would we be without Your wisdom, Lord? Alzheimer’s is a mystery to us, but not to You. Open our minds to Your inspiration. Thank You for continuing to guide us in the care of those we love.

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Miracles Light the Darkness

Seeing miracles makes us long to see more. Watching for them gives us hope. A sudden “yes,” a change of mood, an easy meal—no matter when they occur, miracles make caregivers stronger.

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“It’s OK.” It seems we say it to our loved ones maybe a hundred times a day. Do they believe us?

“It’s OK, I’ll help you.”

“It’s OK, I’ll clean it up.”

“It’s OK, let’s try again.”

“It’s OK.  It’s OK.” Do they ever believe us?

Sometimes Mom did. How do I know? She told me so. If we watch those we care for closely, they’ll tell us lots of things. Not the way they used to, but in the ways they still can.

Evening was a difficult time for Mom. Each night brought a question that wouldn’t let her rest, and our answers didn’t always satisfy her.

“Where is our car? Is it safe?”

“It’s OK, Mom. It’s in the garage. Very safe.”

“It’s outside?  The car.  Where is the car?”

On and on.

I could give different answers or try to change the subject, but usually Mom remained unconvinced. Eventually I found more success by showing instead of telling. “I’ll go check on it right away.” I’d go outside, open the garage door, close it, come back inside, and say, “The car’s fine. Thank you for reminding me, Mom.” That might be the end of it. Or we might begin again almost immediately.

Each evening, I worked toward only one goal: to convince Mom that everything was OK. Pat her hand, hold her long, nicotine-stained fingers in my short, square ones, and assure her, “It’s OK, Mom. We have it all taken care of.”

Eventually, bed time would come. Sometimes welcome, often not.

“I’m not tired.”

“That’s OK, Mom. Let’s just get ready. Then when you are tired, you can just go crawl under the covers.”

“I’m ready right now. And I’m not tired.”

So, time for the ultimate strategy. The irresistible force which could almost always move my well-nigh immovable mother. I called it “Keeping a Secret from Dad.” I’d stand up, turn to my father, and—whether he was awake or not—say with dramatic volume, “We’ll be back, Dad. You stay right here. We don’t need you to come with us.”

Then, turning back to Mom, I’d wink several times, extend my arm to her, and say, “Mom, I need to show you something back here in the other room.”

Two women headed for the bathroom to share secrets. It was indeed OK. Once we closed the door, my whispers and giggling kept Mom’s attention on me and off our lengthy clean-up procedure. By the time we left the bathroom, Mom was truly tired.

As we walked arm-in-arm to her side of the bed, we passed the large black and white portrait of my sister and me, made four decades ago at a time when my parents could scarcely afford it. We passed Dad’s closet, perfectly arranged, the shoe-shine basket front and center on the top shelf. We passed the chair that held the turquoise and white package of disposable underwear, ladies size medium.

As soon as we rounded the end of the bed, Mom would reach for the wooden rail Dad attached to the wall to help her steady herself. She always commented on it. “Isn’t this nice? Your father made this for me. It’s new. Don’t you like it?”

Finally we were in place.

“OK, Mom, just sit right here.”

After rearranging her feet, looking at the bed, and saying “OK” a couple of times, she perched on the tiniest edge of the mattress.

“Good, Mom, but let’s sit way back. We don’t want you falling out of bed!” I would laugh.

She’d look up and say, “Oh, child, what am I thinking?  I’m sorry.” And then she would stand with difficulty, re-position herself, and sit back down in precisely the same spot.

“That’s OK, Mom. Let’s try it again.” If it was just too hard for her that night, I’d virtually pick her up and put her in a safe position, slide her stiff legs up, help her unbend, pat and smooth and smile and say, “There! How’s that? OK?”

Then my reward. The reward for this long evening. The reward that made it all OK—these months, these years of saying goodbye. The reward that still consoles, comforts, wraps me in memories of mother and child and child and mother. The reward. I can hear her yet.

“Oh, that’s fine, child,” my mother tells me with a smile like soft sunlight. “That’s really fine. Thank you so much, child. I just don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Well, you don’t ever have to worry about that, Mom. I’ll be here.”

I’d bend down, so far down, and kiss her cheek that still smelled of cigarettes and soap as she closed her eyes, the sunshine smile setting on her face.

“Child.” Did she remember my name? It didn’t matter. I think she knew I was hers. That made it OK. That made everything all right.

The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;  the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night (Ps. 121:5-6   NIV).

Father, we know that every good thing comes from You. Thank You for the miracles You show us through our loved ones. Guide our minds and hands and words, Lord, so that we may show them Your love and care.

The Sudden Yes

I kneel on the damp rug in the pink tiled bathroom and let my arms drop to my sides.  Turning my palms up, I bend forward until the backs of my fingers touch the fuzzy loops of the rug.

“Thank you, Lord,” I whisper.  Smiling with relief.  Tearful with gratitude.  Still amazed by the miracle He worked here just a while ago.

Mom consented to a bath.

“Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.”

This bath is Mom’s first in three weeks or more.  I have suggested or asked or pleaded with her almost every day, sighed when she said no, then prayed that tomorrow will be the day she says yes. Her refusal to bathe is stacked among myriad other refusals, like so many boulders stuck in a muddy road.  No to breakfast, no to medications, no to combing her hair, changing clothes, putting on shoes.  So many no’s from Mom, so many prayers from me.

And so many answers from the Lord! Answers delivered in a stunning way, like sunlight breaking through a storm cloud.  “Yes!”  My mother’s sudden yes.  Yes, she will eat.  Yes, she will walk outside for a while.

Today, yes, she would take a bath. A miracle.

Now the tub is rinsed, the shampoo bottle capped, the towels back on the rack.  Mom is settled in her chair facing my father’s, with Charlie dog between them.   I linger in the bathroom, savoring the sweetness of the past hour, listening to my father’s booming praise for the woman he still loves so patiently, so dearly.

“Look at you, Honey!  You look beautiful!”

“My hair is all wet,” she says. I can’t see her, but I imagine Mom patting her head, a smile flitting around her lips, settling in her eyes. Her words are single syllable notes I can scarcely make out in the loud chorus of celebration from my father.

“It’s shiny!” he fairly roars. “Clean and combed and shiny!”

“Thank you, Lord.” I must say it once more before I rise from the rug.  For my father’s joy, my mother’s calm, my own relief.  They will be fuel for our hope for many days to come. 

The Lord met us here today with His sweet provision.  With wisdom, the promised reward of patience.  The wisdom of warm water, slow movements, a daughter’s perseverance, a husband’s devotion.  This bath, this one miracle in the string of daily miracles we are given in answer to our prayers, will light our steps forward.  Small steps, and slow, but taken with the Lord of all hope leading the way.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up  (Galatians 6:9 NIV).

We pray to You, Father, in weariness, but with faith. We pray in desperation, but with hope. We pray in confusion, but believing that You hear, trusting You will answer our prayers with power and mercy. Great is Your faithfulness. Thank You, Lord.

The Biggest Miracle

Mid-morning often found my mother sitting half-dressed, wet, and smelly on “her” couch in the den, while my father and I sat at the kitchen table, defeated.

Mom had said no. When she awoke and we helped her out of bed, she said no to the bathroom. No to dry clothes. No to her chair at the table and the orange juice and tea that awaited her there. No. Clearly, emphatically—no.

Dad and I knew time was the only help we could give Mom as she sat in these dark moods.

So we waited. Dad slumped forward, elbows on the table, head in his hands. I perched on the edge of my chair across from him, with short, desperate pleas for help threading through my mind like a mantra. When I became aware of my thoughts, I would stop, grasp the knots of faith hunkered down in my spirit, and start to pray again, consciously.

Eventually, though, we’d look at each other.

“The sofa’s been wet before, Daddy,” I’d say. “We’ll clean it up.” Then, more quietly, I’d remind him, “You know she always comes around. She’ll be clean and dry in an hour or two or three…we’ll just wait for the right time.”

“Yes, honey. Sooner or later.”  Dad spoke in low tones that rose from between his hunched shoulders. “And you know….”

Here it comes, I’d think. I knew what to expect. Hope was on its way, like a bright balloon, getting bigger and bigger.

“And you know,” he’d say as he straightened his back, “the days aren’t all this way.”  His voice would get a little lighter. “And the whole day’s not lost. In fact, by this afternoon she might be telling me ‘I love you, Daddy. I just don’t know what I’d do without you.’  We’ll just wait a while. Maybe I can get her to drink some juice.”

And there it was. Once again. The miracle of hope. The drive to try again. By the kindness of heaven and the power of the Almighty, my father never lost it. He conceded a battle sometimes, but he always returned to the field.  He remained a valiant, loving, fierce warrior throughout my mother’s illness. He fought for her. He fought to keep her alive, to keep her at home, to keep her with him. Hope helped him fight. He never let it go.

  • Hope. Expect it. Invite it in.
  • Feed it by remembering past events that have seemed hopeless but have ended well.
  • Even when you can’t find your own hope, talk about it to friends, family, other caregivers. Let them share with you.

Hope is the biggest miracle. It opens our eyes to see the other wonders that come to caregivers every day.  We’ll look at more miracles next week.

Meanwhile, will you share your own stories with me and the caregivers who read this blog?  We can give so much to each other, in spite of distance and time.  Just scroll to the bottom of this page and click in the “Leave a Reply” space. We will all thank you!

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…. Therefore we do not lose heart….We are being renewed day by day  (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 16  NIV).”

Father of all hope and encouragement, open our eyes to the power you give us to care for our loved ones every day. Fill us with the certainty that You are always with us, and where You are present, miracles abound.