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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

living at the cemetery


At age 78 my father died before my mom, of lung cancer within just six weeks of diagnosis, although he had never smoked a cigararette, cigar or pipe. Mom had a long, gradual loss of brain function to Alzheimer's, and when Dad died she was at that stage when she seemed pretty normal on the surface, until she'd do or say something odd. For instance she would get up at 2am, take everything out of the refrigerator, and spread it out on the kitchen table for breakfast, then go wake whoever was sleeping to come and eat.

(After Dad died, my sister Nancy took care of Mom for a grueling and heartbreaking six months in our family home, until Nancy thought she'd lose her mind, and we moved Mom into a charming home where people with dementia were given expert and loving care, where she lived until she died in her sleep 18 months later.)

In the busy days when we were working out arrangements for Dad's funeral (he was a small town minister, so choosing the right minister and deciding which of the two town funeral homes were tough decisions), Mom would wake up each morning and ask, "Where's Daddy?" even though she saw him take his last breath on his hospice bed set up in the dining room, surrounded by all but one of their 8 children, some of their spouses and some grandchildren. We would tell her, each time, "Dad died, Mom." And she'd begin to wail, as if hearing it for the first time. "How did he die? Oh, I can't believe it!"

After the funeral and hubbub were over and it was just the two of them at the house, Nancy was daily repeating this answer to Mom's morning question, with the same resulting fresh grief. One day Nancy realized she needed to utilize "Alzheimer's logic" and not worry about little things like telling the truth - not easy for a minister's daughter.

So when Mom asked one morning, "Where's Daddy?" Nancy replied, "Dad lives at the cemetery now, Mom."

Mom: "Oh! Really! Oh, that's nice."

It clicked, it was fine. No more grief. In fact whenever friends came to pay a visit, she would tell them "Carl lives in the cemetery now," to explain his absence.

I leave you with a portrait of Mom at the start of her brilliant life (at about the same age as I am in the top photo), before graduating high school and starting Smith College at age 16, before being crowned Best Athlete in both schools (field hockey in which she could play both right and left wing, swimming, tennis, basketball), before developing her encyclopedic mind, before expert proficiency at the piano, before writing scores of songs (including this one written to the tune Finlandia by Jean Sibelius; this one is sung on Mother's Day at churches throughout the U.S., because there are very few hymns written about family), before devoting her life to God as much as any nun except that she married, before loving each of us 8 kids with Mother's Day cards at breakfast, telling us she wouldn't be a mother if it weren't for us.

Mom's birthday is tomorrow, June 26. I didn't even remember that until now, a few hours after posting this. I guess she is in the air.

39 comments:

Anet said...

Thank you for sharing this story with us Ruth. It is so sad... but a very beautiful tribute to your parents. Your mother sounds like she was an amazing women.
Now was Olive her mother or your fathers?
The picture of her as a little girl... how precious and beautiful!

Ruth said...

Oh thank you, Anet. The thing is, if anything, I have understated how amazing she was. Olive was her mother, yes. My mom was an only child, and Grandma Olive said that raising my mom was like raising an army. :) So as precious and beautiful as she looks (I agree!) she was full of more energy than Olive could abide sometimes. There's a story that Olive was designing wallpaper, taping the long paper on her own walls to line up the patterns, and my mom was tearing around driving her crazy. Imagine!

Sharon said...

What a wonderful tribute Ruth. We're you two close or is it time that allows you to see her as she was?
I love that
"Dad lives at the cemetery now, Mom."
and that she found comfort in that....what a kindness to spare her his death over and over

Ruth said...

Sharon, we were close, but in a limited way. God and church came first. Don't take this wrong, it sounds strange, and I don't mean to be cruel, but in some ways Alzheimer's softened the pressures around her. However I would never wish that disease on any individual or family.

Loring Wirbel said...

The musical talents come through, as do the love of family. It's interesting to see people who place all their talents at the service of faith, something I don't quite grasp. But it's fascinating to hear you say that Alzaheimer's softened those edges. Your mom was pretty amazing.

Ruth said...

Loring, it used to bother me a lot that Mom left behind some of her own heritage when she chose God and submitted her talents to 'him' and the church. I think I felt that I, I was cheated somehow, because the choices got filtered to us kids too. It has taken friends through the years to show me that maybe resenting those limitations is too limiting a point of view! There is also a richness in the religious upbringing that made me who I am, even if I don't follow it now.

Mom was so amazing that she could be overwhelming. But I understood her, I think, and I know she appreciated that, and that gave us a strong affection for each other.

VioletSky said...

What a lovely tribute. And I understand about illness 'softening' a person.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Sanna. Yeah?

Sandy said...

What a great story Ruth. She sounds like she was an amazing woman and so beautiful too. Such a pretty smile. I really enjoyed reading this and I know that dementia can be a hard thing to deal with.

I have a neighbor whose 40 year old son was killed in a car crash and for about a year and maybe even to this day but I don't see her much, she will ask me about Eric and will have to be reminded over and over about his death, which seems fresh to her every time.

I haven't seen her much lately though so I don't know if that is still going on.

Didn't realize you had so many siblings.

I really enjoyed this.

laura said...

What a beautiful girl--I love her stance and expression: forthright and whimsical. The story of
your sister's accommodation/revelation is an important one; a lesson in perspective and kindness.
You're pretty cute yourself, btw--love that blond pageboy!

André Lemay said...

I know about Alzheimer, we have a very good friend who has this and her husband has passed. She seldom reconize us and I find it hard. A doctor told us that they are happy in their own world, I hope this true.

Ruth said...

Sandy, thank you for giving your time to reading this and for your response. I remember as a child realizing that 'old people' were only old in body, and that often their minds were quite youthful. But this disease, or any dementia, can take a brutally long time to suck out the mind. Did you know that since it's short term memory loss, often people conflate people, like my mom thought my dad was HER dad.

Yes, I am the youngest. I think you are the oldest? Just you and your sister?

* - * - *

Laura, thank you. I love this portrait of Mom too, every little detail, the lace on her socks, the cut of her patent shoes. And thanks for thinking I looked cute, but every time I see this photo I remember how grumpy I was in those moments and refused to smile. I think I had been at church all morning, and I was probably tired and hungry!

* - * - *

André, I'm so sorry about your friend. I'm sorry you have to watch her change. It broke my heart that it became too difficult to take care of Mom, because it was a round-the-clock job. I think I will never know for sure if I did the right thing to let her be attended by others in a home. At the time, we believed it was the only choice. And yes, I believe of all the diseases, this one is easier for the person, while it is most difficult for the family.

Kellan said...

Oh, I am sorry about your mother and your father. It broke my heart to imagine your mother feeling that same pain over and over again, because she could not remember the passing of your father. I was relieved that your sister came up with this new answer that spared your mother of this pain - over and over again.

Happy Birthday to your mom - I send wishes to Heaven!!

Take care - Kellan

Rauf said...

They all go Ruth, Mine is very close, hardly a kilometer, a walk in our cemetry is always pleasant, its beautiful, like a forest in the city. i feel happy to see that i'll be living there. We are not supposed to mark our graves. So i can't locate mom and dad's, so is going to be mine. When you pray you are supposed to pray for all, not just for your mom and dad or your dear ones. That is why the graves are supposed to be unmarked. Very rich have tombstone and marked graves.

Mom and dad are smiling in the picture but you seem to be worried about the next President. Handsome dad, gorgeous mom. Precious pictures.

i don't speak anything in my defence Ruth, smoking is no good. But i tell my friends who hound me to stop smoking that even those who never smoked die of cancer. There are cancer cells in every body, some grow, the unfortunate ones, mom died of breast cancer, she never smoked. We need some reason to die, heart lung brain kidney or liver, it has to stop functioning one day. My heart has been beating non stop for so long, it has to stop.

Your life today with a priest father would have been lot more difficult than the sixties. You may have different views now but these views are based on a very strong foundation you were given, and all the decisions you make today stand on that robust foundation. Not all are as fortunate as you are Ruth. You had and you are having a wonderful life, a very happy family. When i think of Don, you Peter and Lesley i always smile, Americans are nice aren't they ? Your family represents America to me and to your readers abroad.

Drowsey Monkey said...

Your mom's lovely. The photos are just wonderful. As you know my mom has Alzheimer's ... she's been in a home for a few years now. When our dad passed away ... she'd ask where he was and we either said he was in the kitchen having lunch or having a nap. Which worked because those were his 2 favorite things to do anyway, lol.

I love your story. It's such horrible disease ... so very sad for the person inflicted and heartbreaking for the family.

Ruth said...

Kellan, it is heartbreaking. And from what I can tell, researchers haven't gotten much closer to finding out what causes the disease. Bless you for the birthday wishes!

* - * - *

Rauf, you taught me something new about cemeteries in India, the graves are unmarked. Does this vary among the religions?

Worried about the next President, hehehe, yes either that or whether I was going to get peppermint ice cream after dinner.

Thank you, yes, you are right, I see it now, that the life I had growing up was a great good fortune. And yes, what I have now can't be topped.

I know my parents had to have done a lot right because of how I look forward to being with my siblings, their spouses and their children and grandchildren next week for our 4th of July reunion at the cottage.

And are you almost settled and comfortable?

Ruth said...

Dear Drowsey, yes, your mom too. Oh it brings tears, gosh. Thank god for these homes where they can be cared for, because their safety is one thing we just can't provide at home. My mom would slip out at all hours, and who knew where she'd gone (usually to the dentist's office a block away; I think she had a crush on him).

I remember how hard it was to visit her there in the home, never knowing what state she'd be in. Many times we found her playing away on the piano, one thing she didn't lose until close to the end.

I wish your mom well and some happiness in her little cave.

gaz said...

ruth, what a lovely post. i hope you enjoy the day and that it's full of lovely memories.
lovely photo - what a treasure.

VioletSky said...

My mother became considerably less critical during her last weeks, though she was really only in severe decline for about a month. For years my father did not pay much attention to any of us, until he had been in hospital continually for a couple of years, then his face would light up (sometimes) and he starting being grateful for our visits. Wish he did that more before then; it would have made visiting easier.

A good friends' mother though, had dementia. She had been a very nervous, irritable woman during our growing up years and Kay found it difficult to have to go back and take care of her. She found a home for her mum where she had excellent care. We learned to lie to her continually which kept her calm. She would be reliving 1936 and 1976 all at the same time. Difficult to follow, but entertaining. The more her dementia progressed, the more fun she was to be with - unless you tried to tell her who you were or contadicted her story. By the time she started singing old show tunes during our visits Kay had reconciled that this was no longer "her mother" and made her peace. Of course, it was always easier for me to visit.

alek said...

thank you for showing me this Ruth...i don't need to say more [smile]

Ruth said...

Ah thanks, Gaz, that's sweet. I AM enjoying the day, wore her favorite color: green.

* - * - *

Sanna, what you said about your dad was true in other ways about my dad too. Ways he mellowed at the end that I wish could have filled the years previous. We all have lessons to learn, and isn't it great they learned them before they died.

Oh gosh, never never contradict! The wicked spiral of argument begins, hahaha! Oh my goodness such ridiculous time we spent trying to correct her. You and your friend were so smart to have fun and just enter the dementia world with her. And yes, at some point I just said good-bye to Mom, she was gone, and I did what I could to make this person happy who lived in the shell of my mom's body.

* - * - *

Alek, nope, 'nuf said.

Sandy said...

Hi Ruth, no I'm the middle child, my sis is a little older and my brother was 8 years younger. He passed away at 39.

WHen I took care of my mom when she had cancer, towards the end she thought once that my dad was her dad. She also thought my sis was on the Price is Right and won lots of prizes, haha. Of course it wasn't funny at the time.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Such a touching story Ruth..

the past reminding us of things that can never be changed.... no matter how much we wish we had done something differently or said something extra... or not said anything at all... emotions and images still linger in our minds

Ruth said...

Sandy, oh ok. I'm sorry about your brother. One of my brother's died young too, at 47. His birthday is Saturday.

So strange how the mind misfires, isn't it? Actually, maybe it's more of a wonder when it fires right, so complicated it is.

* - * - *

Thank you, Gwen. I feel better today than I did yesterday about having to leave Mom in the hands of non-family. There were so many issues of safety and stuff that we just couldn't handle on our own.

Amy - "Twelve Acres" said...

Thank you for sharing your mother's story. How very touching and poignant.

Ruth said...

Thank you for reading and leaving your kind comment, Amy.

Sandy said...

that made me cry

Ruth said...

Me too, Sandy. Bless you.

Cloudscome said...

What a beautiful girl and an accomplished woman. You had a brilliant mother. Blessings!

Ruth said...

Thank you for reading, Cloudscome. She keeps touching us, a remarkable person.

Bob Johnson said...

Beautiful tribute Ruth, and cool pictures.

Your mother had a full life, even a song writer, by the way I love it, too bad they didn't have the chords written over the words, just has C/Db key.

I found the related verse Joshua very interesting and telling,

"Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord."

Beautiful post Ruth.

LeenaM said...

After reading this I could have so much in my mind and to say or ask, but now my poor English is as a block.
I say only, that your writing gives very alive, loving picture about your parents and in same time about you. And both pictures are just great.
When you told me about your mom`s song over a year ago, I remember always her, when I hear Finlandia and I know, she is worthy of that remembrance.
Thank you for this post, Ruth.

Astrid said...

I just read the story about your mam, Ginnie have been telling me so much about her, it must have been a very intulectual and sportive lady, I know I would have loved her if I would have been able to have met her, it is a shame that she had to be so ill, I know she is in the air, Ginnie told me the 26th, 'it would have been my mom's birhtday'
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story.

Ruth said...

Bob, thank you so much. I'm guessing those chords must be available somewhere . . .

Yes, the verse. My mom followed that verse with all her heart, and wanted her family to follow it too.

* - * - *

Leena, thank you for coming and reading after I invited you to see about my mom. It is a happy connection between us, my Finnish big sister. I hope the lake life is relaxing and warm.

* - * - *

Dear Astrid, she was very intelligent but would not like to be called intellectual. I know there must not seem to be a big difference, but to her, being intellectual would be a hindrance to walking with God. It's nice that you were with Ginnie in Mom's birthday, so Ginnie was with a dear friend and not alone while Donica was away.

Deslilas said...

Sad and so beautiful story. You're lucky to be able to speak and write such things.

Deslilas said...

My wife Kaija has just sung your mother's words on the Finlandia melody. It was very fine.
Thanks.

Ginnie said...

Thank you for remembering Mom, Ruth. I needed that!

lesleyanne said...

thank you for sharing this mommy.
i love you.

Ruth said...

Daniel, I wish I could hear Kaija sing Mom's song. I'm thinking it was very fine indeed.

* - * - *

Boots and Wesrey, you're welcome, and I love you both.