Promises – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 12

When we are children, we make promises to our peers such as ‘I’ll always be your friend’. The world seems so large and so infinite to us, and yet we typically cannot conceive of things ‘changing’. We lack the experiences to show us that everything changes – that nothing is really constant – nor can it be. We lack the insight to choose our words more carefully and make our promises more wisely and considerately. We don’t foresee deaths…divorces…differences of opinion…and all the things that can impede our keeping the promises we make.

Many years ago I was a single man…between relationships and before making any promises of ‘for richer or poorer’. My mother had just lost her best friend to cancer. The woman, Becky, had been my mother’s constant companion for many years. They had spoken of selling both their homes and buying lakefront property to ‘retire to’ one day. They promised to help each other out, since neither of them were married, as they aged. And then came a terminal diagnosis that neither of them foresaw, and Becky’s promise to my mother fell victim to an illness she just couldn’t fight, no matter how she tried.

Mom promised to take care of Becky in her final days, and Becky moved into Mom’s house, into one of the unused bedrooms, where round-the-clock nurses would care for Becky, although Mom did as much as she could; even things that the nurses were supposed to do. Mom changed clothes and bandages…helped with feeding…filled empty hours with board games and television viewing. I would even spend a night per week at Mom’s house then, long after I’d moved out, just to give her someone else to talk to or something else to focus on other than the fact that her best friend was dying in the other room. I continued to do so for a time even after Becky passed, as suddenly Mom’s house full of caregivers and pain killing prescriptions was now back to an empty nest, so to speak.

Becky promised Mom that she would leave her house, her car, and some investment accounts, worth quite a bit of money, to my mother in order to help fulfill the promise of buying the retirement home on a nearby lake. She revised her existing will, leaving it all to Mom except for a few family heirlooms that were to go to Becky’s brother, all but estranged, and his wife and children. Becky’s brother contested the will…claimed that Mom had coerced Becky into signing the things he deemed of value (not counting any items of sentimental value, as Peter was not a man given to sentiment) over to Mom. He argued that Becky was not in her right mind when she made those decisions, got Becky (who by then was definitely not in her right mind any longer) to state that she had been confused by some of it, and unfortunately a judge sided with Peter in terms of the bank accounts. Mom did inherit the house and the car, but the money all went to Peter. Hence, Becky’s promise to Mom was broken, and the lakeside retirement home never came to be, whereas my sister lived in the house that Becky left to Mom up until my sister’s death in 2012.

This was all two decades ago. I was in my mid-20’s. Mom was then in her early 60’s. Retirement was not yet in sight, and neither was old-age for her. She spoke of it, some, but really only focused on one aspect of it – she was, as she emphatically insisted, NOT to be put into a nursing home. I promised her I wouldn’t. I offered to take her in when the time came and let her live out her days with me. I wasn’t then ‘planning’ on being married, to say nothing about becoming a parent one day. Those things just weren’t necessarily in the cards for me back then. And so, I promised her that I’d take care of her when the time came.

In the last few months my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where it’s impacting her long-term memory as well as her short-term. Her doctor has determined that she cannot care for her day to day needs any longer, nor manage her finances, nor make sound medical decisions for herself. I read a piece of paper recently, a letter from him, that declared my mother ‘incompetent’. I saw the word and wanted to cry. My mother is many things; stubborn…impatient…judgmental…often unreasonable…but to give credit where credit is due she raised three children without much help…she kept us from being hungry or cold or homeless until we were old enough to care for ourselves. We never missed meals, nor did we ever go out of the house in tattered clothing. We weren’t lavished upon, certainly; but we did have the basic necessities to survive. My mother rarely ever missed a day of work, or made a late bill payment in her life. She was always strong and determined, no matter what  I now think in reflecting upon her methods. I have used many words to describe my mother over time. I have also seen many words used to describe her.

Incompetent was never one I thought I’d see.

Mom’s needs have gone beyond the point where my brother and I can care for her safely. Goodness knows we have both tried. I moved her here near me to be able to help her out more and be closer when medical situations arose, and to more closely track the progression of her dementia. She went to my brothers for what was meant to be a one month stay, and has not returned. Falls…hospitalizations….blood pressure incidents…further failing memory…it’s as if time and age are taking this woman who fought so hard and so long to be so independent and throwing her to the ground and kicking her repeatedly while someone takes her mind and memories away like it’s a handwritten book and a person with a great big eraser is wiping away all the words there.

Today Mom transitioned from the rehab hospital she has been in for a few weeks to an assisted living facility in Florida, where she will remain until/unless her needs change even more and it’s deemed ‘not enough’ for her.

Today my promise to my mother, to take care of her in her final years, has been fully broken. It’s just one that I couldn’t keep.

When I visited Mom two weeks ago to talk to her, with my brother, about this transition and the need for it, she accepted it without argument, much to our surprise. I think in ways she knows, no matter what, it’s necessary for her safety and well-being.

I still felt like a failure, though, no matter how well she took it.

We sat and talked, alone, one of the mornings I was there. She is questioning that my brother is married (she cannot recall it, even though it happened 27 years ago this month) and thinks my sister-in-law, who has been spending days with Mom in Florida for months now, is someone Mom knew for years who just up and married my brother. She brought up my father’s recent death more than once, even more than once in the same hour, as if we hadn’t spoken of it at all, to express how sorry she was that my dad had died. Each time I just said, ‘Thank you, Mom.’

We sat close enough to one another that I could hold her hand while we spoke. She looked at me, after we’d just spoken about some other detail that has been lost to her about life, and she said, ‘I want you to know that no matter what else I forget…I will never forget you, my son. I promise.’

I forced a small smile for her. I; who writes volumes about situations and people and memories, was momentarily at a loss for words. I know she was sincere. I also know the reality. I’ve been there before, with a grandmother who eventually didn’t recognize me. It might not happen, but the odds are against me.

‘I know Mom, but just in case that does happen….I know if some day I’m no longer here,’ (I touched her head) ‘I know I will always be here.’ (I placed my hand over her heart).

‘Good’, she said, ‘because at the rate I’m going, I might not get to keep my promise, no matter how much I try.’


Unsolicited Advice – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 11

My brother and I started noticing ‘changes’ in our mother several years ago. Back then they were more subtle…repeating parts of conversations, having to think about names of people she didn’t encounter regularly, and other small ‘gaps’ in her cognitive process.

Mom is a very stubborn person – or as she puts it ‘independent’. She speaks of this trait as something she has had to be over time, raising three children without much help….but we all have been adults now for a long, long time. It goes deeper than that with her, which is something I’ve come to understand to a greater degree the older I get and the better acquainted with myself I become.

In the past nine months I have had much more direct insight into and involvement with my mother’s care, as has my brother for the past few months while she’s been staying with him in Florida – a trip that was initially supposed to be one month but has been extended now to just under three and with no real ‘end date’ in sight.

During this time, as it’s become necessary to ‘take over’ many portions of mom’s day to day care I’ve learned a great deal. I hope that my own experiences, if I pass on some unsolicited advice, will assist others in their own similar efforts with aging parents, and perhaps give some aging parents a little insight as to what those who try to assist you will face.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s a few tips I’d like to pass along. I am certainly no expert on any of this, and in the past nine months have made several mis-steps along the way. But I hope my experience helps others.

1. Power Of Attorney – this is a very, very valuable thing to have for those trying to assist aging parents. But don’t assume it’s the end all and be all of necessary documentation in and of itself. Even if you have power of attorney, have it notarized. Some transactions, irrespective of the P.O.A. are not completely ‘valid’ unless notarized. I recently sold my mother’s house in Maine, and found that even with power of attorney, because it was not notarized, the deed had to be signed and witnessed and notarized by my mother for my P.O.A. to be valid to sign the rest of the documents for the sale.

2. Medical Proxy – Again, a very useful document. However, should you reach a stage where your parent/loved one cannot make sound medical decisions for themselves, or should you need to have access to a full medical history to properly care for them and understand the foundation of certain challenges they may face, the medical proxy does not guarantee you will have it. Have your loved one sign a medical release with their primary care physician. This is not something you can retroactively have them sign if you have reached a stage where they cannot make sound decisions for themselves any longer whereas it could be challenged that they did not make a sound decision in signing it. As the world becomes more and more litigious in nature, and malpractice suits are filed at the drop of a hat, doctors are, understandably, exercising more and more caution in their efforts.

3. Utilities, insurance policies, and other accounts – It seems one of the easiest decisions to make to say to an aging parent or loved one ‘Let me take that over and handle it’ when you see your loved one, more and more, struggling to make sense of insurance coverages, utility bills, and the like. Don’t assume your power of attorney will grant you access to all the closed doors placed in front of you. Make a list of all the coverages your parent/loved one has, as well as all the utilities they have, and contact each and every one of them and have your parent/loved one authorize you to speak/act on their behalf. You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration this way instead of hearing repeatedly that they cannot assist you whereas you are not an authorized party on the account, and your power of attorney does not grant you this access.

4. Guardianship – One of the toughest decisions for a person to make is to appoint someone to act in their best interests if they are unable to do so themselves. It involves a level of trust with and knowledge of someone that can take a very long time to build. If you, like my mother, reach a stage/condition in life where you do not recognize the progression of dementia, alzheimer disease, or similar debilitating conditions and diseases, you also likely will not recognize the need for someone to step in on your behalf and provide for your well-being and your safety if you are not 100% able to do so for yourself. This can either be a relatively ‘routine’ process, or it can be a very long, difficult road to travel. My brother had guardianship of our father. He/we had to go to court to obtain it following Dad’s stroke and, in essence, prove him unable to care for himself any longer. We both knew it was necessary – Dad did not feel the same. Independence is one of the final remaining things that aging parents feel they still have when they find more and more being taken away from them and they will hold on to it as tightly as they can for as long as they can. Certain wording in a medical proxy or advanced healthcare directive can eliminate the need for a court hearing to determine fitness (unless a parent/loved one challenges it strongly enough), whereas a person’s primary care physician can make the determination that a person is unable to care for themselves and make sound decisions and a guardianship can be enacted upon that determination. It’s not a simple ‘sign and done’ deal, because a physician, if they have any integrity, will cautiously approach this decision with an informed view of a person’s overall condition – but in comparison with the idea of taking your parent to court and what that can feel like or what conflicts can arise from it – it’s the lesser of two evils. Certainly a guardianship can be challenged even if granted this way, but it also can take the ‘personalization’ out of it between a caregiver/loved one if it’s a doctor’s determination that it is necessary.

5. Support – I cannot express how valuable certain friends have become to me in the past several months. They are there with advice, understanding, compassion, or just ears to bend when I’ve needed them to be. I am beyond grateful to have this support in my life. I am not a person to reach out for help easily – I take on a lot, and then try to handle the ramifications of it all myself as well. BIG mistake….at least for me. While the day to day challenges of trying to assist an aging parent/loved one can be daunting enough, at any level of caregiving from occasional help to full-on 24 hour care, don’t forget that this is also your parent (in many cases) and thoughts and feelings and ‘old wounds’ can open up at any moment and come crashing in on you. Set your resources up before you need them. Make it so you don’t have to think about who to call and where to go for support. And to go a step further – if you know someone helping an aging parent/loved one – and they are anything like me (introvert, guarded, doesn’t reach out easily) – rather than ask them if they are okay and accept the answer of ‘yes I’m fine’…..or ask them ‘is there anything I can do’ and accept the answer of ‘nope, nothing I can think of’ – listen to what they are telling you are the biggest challenges they are facing with the caregiving, and suggest taking something off their plate now and again if you are able. Ask them more direct questions than ‘how are you’ – they might open up a bit more when prompted. I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for yourself and speaking your needs, but when it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, even the most ‘responsible’ people can forget how to for a while.

6. Be Kind To Yourself – Remind yourself you are doing the best you can. Remind yourself of this often. Every day.  And try to remember that you are not a machine, and sometimes, no matter how good your intentions are, you are going to make choices you will later wish you’d made differently. It happens…to everyone.


What I Lost Last Week

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

On Monday, May 25th, 2015 my father passed away. He was 83 years of age.

Each day since then has been filled with tears and filled with sorrow. Each day that passes I’m strong when I need to be, and then not when I don’t. Some days I get bogged down with a task at hand, and the grief I feel shifts around to somewhere other than the forefront of my mind. But when the task ends, or when I sit down to allow myself to rest for a moment, or when the house is quiet and I’m the only one still up, or I awake in the middle of the night it comes crashing back over me. Grief is cruel that way. Cruel and unfair. It strikes when you least expect it, and then lingers to taunt you.

I must speak of my father in the past tense now. I can drive past a certain assisted living home in Maine, but I no longer will stop there. It’s not where he sleeps, it’s where he slept. I can look for grape nut ice cream in a list of available flavors. It’s not what he likes, it’s what he liked. I can mimic his words and tell his oft repeated stories, even in his voice. It’s not what he says, it’s what he said.

So many words seem infinite in their potential and their capacity. We can like many things. We can know many things. We can love many people. So many words in our language seem to encompass moments and hours and weeks and years. Live is one of those words. We live by breathing and eating and loving and feeling. We live in the miles that we travel and the disappointments that we face and rise above. We live in the moments that we create with others and for ourselves. We live in the knowledge we acquire and our relationships with others and the legacies we leave behind. We live from the moment we draw first breath to the moment we expel our last.

The word die is different. It is a present tense word that the use of only encompasses a brief moment in the span of eternity. It is the moment when we cease to breathe…we cease to feel…and we cease to live. There is before, which we participate in and leave our mark for later if we are lucky. There is also after, which is not ours to own. That belongs to those we leave behind to mourn us and honor us and miss us and remember us. But in the word die there is only the briefest flicker of time in the space between before and after. Our eyes, once open, close, and then before is done, and after has filled its place without us even noticing the transition.

At my father’s funeral, I spoke of him and of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years. Fortunately it ended in healing and in forgiveness some ten years ago. I am grateful for those ten years, and yet feel cheated out of the other 36 I might have had with him. For a period of time lasting more than a decade I cut my father out of my life and robbed myself in the process. I won’t take full responsibility for that separation, as we both had a hand in it. But for my part in what brought about our silence with one another for all those years I am sorry. For what I lost in those years, time with my father, I am filled with regret and told him so before he passed away. For what I have now lost with his death, I know there is no apology for, and no forgiveness to seek, and no substitute for.

When my father died last week, I lost many things. I lost more than eighty years of wisdom and experience. I lost answers to questions I never thought to ask. I lost arms that would wrap around me no matter what was wrong or what I had done and comfort me. I lost stories of my grandparents and their parents before them that he hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I lost laughs that we hadn’t yet shared, as well as tears that we might have cried together, safe and comforted in the presence of one another. I lost the hours of anticipation I’d feel knowing I was driving up to Maine to see him. I lost someone who cared about me enough to listen to what my favorite cookie was and hand me a bag full of them, lifted from the coffers of his assisted living home, to send me home with them and carry me through until our next visit. I lost someone who would pick up trinkets and toys found around the facility and send them home for my boys to put a smile on their faces. I lost insight into a time before I lived that no history book will ever offer me. I lost stories of myself that come from a time before my memories began to imprint themselves on my own mind.

I lost a friend. I couldn’t always say that he was my friend. Thankfully that changed before it was too late.

People say grief has five stages to it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe I’ve skipped over the first three stages in an end run for the final two. I cannot deny that my father is gone. I cannot be angry for I know he was prepared for his death and that he had reached a place in his life when he no longer wished to fight a losing battle. I cannot bargain for his continued existence because I’ve already lost him. That leaves me with two stages. I won’t call what I feel depression. Many times people feel as though they have nothing to live for when someone passes, or they begin to think about their own mortality so strongly that it becomes a kind of paralysis to them for continuing to live. I have to go on. I have kids, and family, and friends and experiences to make with all of them. I have many things to teach the boys, memories to not only pass on to them but to make with them as well.

I think this stage is, for me, more aptly labeled sadness. Sad that I can’t listen to him telling me stories, no matter how many times he’d told them to me before. Sad that I can’t hug him anymore, or kiss him on the forehead when I’m leaving and feel him reach up and place his hand over my own that I lay on his shoulder. Sad that my boys won’t get to know him better, at least not directly, and will have to rely on my stories to teach them things about their grandfather. Sad that I have one less place to visit when I go to Maine. Sad that while I can still say ‘I love you, dad’, I can never again hear him reply, ‘I love you, too.’

I know that the stage after this is acceptance. I know that in time the hurt will change and the memories won’t bring so many tears, and I’ll be able to think about his passing and about going to his grave site without a feeling of panic sweeping over me. I’ll come across pictures of him and be able to look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling as though someone has knocked the wind out of me with repeated kicks to my stomach. I’ll take out the very few material things I have of his and hold them in my hand and imagine his hands upon them and perhaps feel that he’s really quite near, rather than feeling the incalculable void that seems before me now when I look at them. I’ll sift through memories of him and not feel like I just want to curl up in a ball and sob until I have no tears left. I know I’ll get there. It’s a journey I’ve taken many times before.

For now, I think I’ll just stick with sad for a while longer.