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Lessons from Mom

Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 5.3 million Americans. My Mom has had Alzheimer’s.  She broke free of it on January 30 2012. But it took fifteen years to say goodbye.

Mom transitioned in 1999 from her country farm life to an assisted living facility 10 days after my Dad died of cancer.  It wasn’t easy on any of us. Over the last few months, I have reflected on my Mom’s life, her end of life journey and the things I learned from her life. Here are a few of my memories and some of what I learned:

Love of cooking and family gatherings 

It was always my Mom who held the family dinners, holiday gatherings and picnics at our home.  She thrived on it.  Her organization and planning skills came from a long history of cooking and baking for a large family. She was well-known for her chocolate chip freezer cookies, fried chicken dinners and homemade nut cakes.  She was always looking for any excuse to have a picnic or family dinner.  One memory that stands out is Thanksgiving dinners.  How we all looked forward to waking up to the smell of turkey!  My Mom got up about 4AM and started preparations.   At Noon it was a standing family joke that it was time to “bring in the FIRST turkey”, but it really wasn’t a joke!

It’s okay to be a little sneaky now and then 

Mom loved Christmas.  With six children, she started preparations in October with planning and gift buying.  She was very careful to try to have an equal number of gifts and gifts of equal value for each child.  We lived on a farm with outbuildings and lots of places to “hide” presents.  Being a lot like her, I would try to search all the likely hiding places to find my gift.  Somehow, she always managed to surprise us with gifts that magically appeared on Christmas morning.

FAMILY

There is not even the slightest doubt in my mind that Mom’s life was centered on family.  I was fortunate in my childhood to grow up on a working farm.  Both of my parents were there every day.  We had family meals three times a day and gathered in the evenings in the family room to watch The Andy Williams Show and Bonanza.

Farm life was not easy for my Mom.  She helped with the hard work outside as well as running an efficient household and tending her much-loved gardens. Occasionally on a summer morning, Mom packed her fried chicken, side dishes and lots of desserts into our 9-passenger station wagon.  After the cows were milked, we would all pile into the car, and head to Caledonia Park for a picnic and a few hours of swimming.  The family had to pack up again by about 3:30PM to get home in time to do the afternoon milking.  It was the only day trips we could do as a family due to the obligations of farm life.  But Mom would make it happen as often as she could.

 

Gaining independence  

Being in a rural area meant no car pools, so you had to depend on your own resources. As the kids grew older, Mom realized that transportation was necessary for her children to become involved in outside activities. As she was approaching her mid-thirties, Mom got her drivers license. I realize now what a difference that made in my life.

With the independence of driving, the kids could now be dropped off for swimming lessons, with friends to go shopping or to the movies.  It was Mom who drove us to Catechism classes, to Sunday school, to summer jobs, and to our friend’s houses.  With Mom’s driving, I could now get involved in band, chorus, orchestra and other afterschool activities. Mom took the time in the summer to take her kids to the local library and get us involved in the summer reading program.  We loved discovering and exploring the library.

Owls, Dogs, Yard Sales, Flower Gardens, and Shopping 

Mom loved her hobbies.  She always had a dog and enjoyed spending time with all of them.  Her shopping and yard sale exploits are legendary.  She could find bargains like no one else!

After a full summer day on the farm, Mom could be found outside watering and tending her plants in the cooler evenings.  Indoors, on every window sill, were flowers of all kinds.  I had the task of indoor watering and it seemed like it took forever to get around to all the window planters.

Mom’s favorite hobby was her collection of owls.  It started during her yard sale adventures and her collection grew to over 500 items.  It was great for her children, since we could always give her owl related gifts for birthdays and Mothers Day.

Making other people smile 

 After I was living on my own, Mom and I would take a day trip and go shopping at the “out-of-town”  malls.  She could out shop me at any age.  She would arrive at my house with breakfast in hand and after enjoying our fresh cinnamon buns, I would drive her Mercury Marquis with the huge trunk and off we would go.  Everywhere we went, she would have a conversation with the sales associates, the waitresses, and any fellow shopper who would listen.  They would learn about her family, my job, what we had purchased, and any other tidbit that was on her mind.  Not having that trait, I wondered how she talked to strangers so easily.  But it always seemed to make their day brighter.

Making difficult choices  As Mom progressed through the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s, a role reversal occurred. I took on the role of parent and she became the child.  I was scared for her and what she must be experiencing.  But I followed her pattern of life and stepped up to do what needed to be done. It is fortunate for me that I inherited her strength and determination.  By far, the most difficult choice was moving Mom to a facility.  I truly agonized about the decision. It felt so wrong to take her away from her beloved country life and her dog, Buffy.  Surprisingly, it took just a few weeks until I believed what the professionals had told me.  Mom would adjust to a smaller environment and would feel safer there.  And she did.  Of course, it took me a lot longer to adjust.

Awareness is still there, even at the end.

There wasn’t much I could do for my Mom in the last years of her life.  She never liked to miss church, so she and I attended services together at her residential facility.  The service was very casual and held in her hallway lounge with other residents who could not focus on a long service.  My mother could not speak and often would just doze through most of the service.

The exception was the hymn singing.  When the music started, she would open her eyes wide and look directly at me. The Chaplain would sing out with a strong soprano.  I would chime in with my alto and Mom’s eyes never left mine.  A time or two there were tears running down her face (and mine) as she heard a familiar tune and inwardly recalled a memory.  To close the service, there was a group recital of the Twenty-third Psalm.  Occasionally,  Mom would try to form a word or two, and I knew that she was experiencing the grace of God.

Alzheimer’s teaches humility.

No one is too smart or too good to escape Alzheimer’s.  It can happen to anyone.  In the last months of her Alzheimer’s  journey, I realized that Mom had no bad memories, no regrets, and no worries about the future.  She was just there.  I try not to ask “Why her?”, but just try to accept that God’s wisdom is far greater than mine.  I did the best I could to be strong for my Mom until it was time for her to go to a better place.

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