Nearly a month ago I boarded a train and headed many hours south, expecting to be back home in a week or less. My stepfather had passed away fairly unexpectedly, and since it was still winter in the mountain passes the train seemed like the safest and most stress-free option. I traveled in the nearly empty Business Class car, shared a table in the dining car with three interesting people, and generally had a good, but long trip.
Nearly a month ago I arrived at the snowy small-town train station, and was greeted by a brother in law. It was after midnight and the train was more than two hours late. And that was when normal stopped. The forty-minute drive was like listening to a travelogue of the previous ten days with my mother and stepfather. An old woman with dementia, who had been beautifully loved and cared for by her husband and who proved her inability to live on her own while he was in the hospital. An old man who was very sick from a previously undiagnosed disease, who was given great hope and believed it, until all the sudden it was the end. It was sudden for those gathered around his bed and for me who took his regular phone calls, but apparently not for him. He spent the day before he died giving directions, discussing financial matters, making sure his family knew what he expected of them in the coming days: love God, love each other, and get along.
Nearly a month ago I arrived at my mother’s house in the middle of the night and found a woman who looked much older and more frail than when I’d seen her three months before. Her confusion deep, and her memory much shorter than I could have imagined. Her clothes were not clean and she’d lost a great deal of weight. In her husband’s declining health he had not wanted to admit that he couldn’t keep up with the responsibility of her increasing dementia. All I heard in our regular phone calls was that they were doing okay. Everything is okay, don’t worry, we’re doing fine together.
Nearly a month ago I boarded the slow train of dementia. Even though I am well-trained and experienced in the art of patient, calm interaction it has required the constant work of quiet self-discipline and prayer. The anxiety, great delight, anger, quiet hours of silence, panic, repetitious questions and comments, paranoia, amazing confabulations, hurt feelings, contradictions, laughter, and the never-ending feeding of indoor and outdoor pets fills the days and evenings. All of it in slow motion because fast movement, fast talk, fast action, fast anything fuels the upset and anxiety. When she says, “I wish you’d just relax,” she means please stop moving. Come and sit still. I sit still for as long as I can, looking out the window watching the quail, doves, red-wing blackbirds, sparrows and their friends coming to eat the wheat she puts out for them more than once day. Then I get up and move again.
Nearly a month ago I prepared food only for myself unless I invited friends over. Here I make sure three nourishing meals make it to the table everyday—fresh, colorful, appealing food served in small pieces to make it interesting and easy.
Nearly a month ago I packed a suitcase with enough winterish clothes to last for a week or so. I have to wash and re-wear them so often I’m afraid they’ll be threadbare soon. I’ve been into town often, 30 miles each way, having forgotten what it’s like to shop for a week to 10 days at a time. Every time I go check the stores looking for a few new pieces to augment my meager wardrobe. So far one top that works well with a cardigan or without.
Nearly a month ago I was looking forward to watching the daffodils and tulips bloom in my yard for the first time, and to see the cherry trees blossom in my neighborhood. Instead I’m watching the daffodils and grape hyacinths just starting to bloom here in mountain elevations, with light snow still coming nearly every day.
Nearly a month ago I could never have imagined simply walking away from my home, my friends, my church, and my job. I sent an email to my office and said I was taking a leave of absence. I sent a group email to my praying friends and told them where I was, and a message to my neighbor. Soon I will go home for two weeks. And then I will be back to see if my mother will finally agree to let someone come in to help her. Maybe after two weeks of friends and family coming into help it might seem a new normal and then it will be okay. I can hope.