Monthly Archives: October 2016

Happy Birthday to You: Birth and Death

Birth and Death  

Soon my husband and I will be making the 7-hour drive upstate to visit my mom, sisters, and brother-in-law. This visit is timed to celebrate Mom’s birthday. She will be 92 years old.

I am leery of this event because people tend to die after birthdays as well as after the very important winter holidays. That being said, I’m not sure that my mom is even aware that her birthday is coming up or that it would mean much to her even if she were. I started mentioning it to her last month, and I know my siblings have been doing the same as we make plans for the family get-together and celebration. However, Mom forgets. I’ve never had her ask me what month it is, just what day of the week, and since she can’t even remember her last name, I don’t know if she knows the month of her birthday any more. We can take less and less for granted as time goes by.

Unfortunately, there is another reason I am feeling superstitious. A few years back one of my sisters asked me how long I thought Mom would live. I don’t know why, but I responded, “92?” Ever since, I have geared myself up for this coming year to be the one in which she dies. It’s magical thinking with no basis in rational thought, but there it is looming in my brain. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I have spent more time than usual lately thinking about her death and what we will do.

Planning for Death and Grief  

Mom belongs to the Neptune Society, so there is no wondering about burial versus cremation, but what about the rest? Will we have a memorial service? Who would come? Who is left? Would we speak? I have nothing to say. (Don’t be snarky! I mean at a service. Obviously I have a lot to say or I wouldn’t be writing here on this blog where I seem to be more open and honest than anywhere else. But I digress—)

There is no church any more, so no minister to call on. Will we simply gather as a family? Have our own private wake? Stare at each other in exhaustion and dismay that here we are at another weird parental death? Drink with dedicated determination until we are either completely anesthetized or finally completely emotional and vulnerable? God, I hate that—being emotional and vulnerable. I like to hold myself tightly together and not break down in front of anyone. Maybe I don’t have to worry. At this point, my bitterness would probably block any access to grief.

But we all know that doesn’t work in the long run. The grief, like truth, is going to find its way out even if it’s only in bits and drabs over the course of years. Much healthier to use the rituals that accompany death to express feeling. That’s what they are for. But I’m not a healthy griever. Too much anger. Too much bitterness.

So I’m thinking that I need to have some discussion with my siblings while we are there as to what we plan to do when Mom does die.

A Birthday Present from Immigrations  

On a lighter note (Whiplash warning! Probably should have worked up some kind of transition here.) Mom has received an early gift. Or, rather we did on her behalf. Immigrations sent her renewed registration card! ( Click here to see the Immigrations and Dementia post.)

There was no in-home interview after the herculean effort we went through to obtain one. The card just unexpectedly showed up in the mail. I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s just that I was certain that all the additional documents I uploaded in September would not be the end of it. I fully anticipated that Immigrations would either reject the photo I took of Mom, fail to open the password-protected letter from her doctor even though I sent the password to them, or demand some entirely new set of requirements. Then, we still had the interview to schedule and get through.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe they just gave up or took one look at her photo and realized they were beating a dead horse. Pffft. Doubt it. They probably just moved on to other prospects to torment. Whatever the reason, we were stunned and relieved to be done with the whole ridiculous process.

So, yippie! A little bit of sunshine in my thundercloud of a post.

For a related post regarding thoughts about impending death, click here to read “Guilt in Caregivers.”

 

Upside of Dementia, II: Conversation

I told you there would be more. Here is the second part to what will be a recurring post about the unexpected benefits of dementia as long as I can find any. Even with dementia, there is still much to enjoy during conversation.  (To read “Upside of Dementia, I: New Relationships,” click here.  To read “Upside of Dementia, III: Preserving Family History,” click here.)

A Successful Topic of Conversation

Conversing with a loved one with dementia can be a frustrating experience. They don’t remember anything for very long, so frequently the conversation is a series of the same questions and comments over and over again. Sometimes, too, you just weary of having to repeat and explain every comment you make because it’s never understood the first time. Conversation just becomes too arduous, and the silences become more frequent.

If you could only steer it to a subject that could last for more than two exchanges, you would be thrilled.

Well, the long term memory is strongest and sticks around the longest.  That means that your loved one’s most secure ground is their childhood. This is a wide open territory to mine when conversation lags or becomes frustratingly repetitious.

Start with What You Know

There is much I know about my mother’s life before she met and married my American father during World War II. She reminisced about her childhood over the years—sleepwalking, having scarlet fever, her mother’s strange behavior, rats in the coal cellar.  We heard she was sent to a convalescent home at age nine to help cure her of stammering and her nervous disposition. Until very recently, she still managed phone conversations and spoke frequently with her last remaining sibling in England. She and my uncle frequently triggered each other’s memories of their childhood, so there were fresh influxes of information from time to time. Mom also at one time wrote a 60-page autobiography, copies of which she distributed to us four children.

All of this gives me the foundation to gather additional details that I am interested to know. More importantly, it gives my mother the opportunity to be the expert and bring richness to a conversation that adds not only to family history but also a fuller understanding of her.

Then Ask for More Details  

For example, I knew that my mother and her siblings were evacuated out of London during the war. All parents were exhorted to allow their children to leave the city that was expected to be the main target of bombings. Children went off with their gas masks, some clothes, and a day’s supply of food. But they didn’t go as family, they went with their school class and their class teachers to be distributed to villages in the country. Therefore, none of my mother’s siblings saw each other or their parents very much for years. It always seemed horrible to me that these children were not only away from their parents, but did not even have the comfort of being with a brother or sister at a time their country was at war.

So during one of my most recent visits, I asked Mom how old her younger brothers were when they were evacuated and whether they were scared. She surprised me by saying that the boys thought it was all a great lark and loved the families they were placed with. We figured out that they were eleven and nine years old at the time, given that she would have been fourteen. Her older sister was old enough at sixteen or seventeen to be allowed to stay in London.  We talked about how hard it must have been for parents to send their children away for years in order to keep them safe.  As I already knew, their home was bombed out. This day, though, Mom told me that their home went with the very first bombing of London.

Conversation Rating:  A+

Altogether, our conversation was much more valuable than talking about the garden or how my husband and I are keeping busy in our recent retirement.  More importantly, it is a topic in which my mother is the authority, not the confused ‘patient.’