Not forgotten. Gratitude Experiment: Day 16

I raced to get home after grocery shopping this morning to arrive before my step dad dropped off my Mom.   This is part of our routine.  He drops my mom off on the way to his weekly doctor appointment and I watch her for a while.   My mom has Alzheimer’s and is only 71.

Mentally, I have to gear up for visits with my mom, even though it has gotten easier since they’ve lived nearby for the last year and a half.   I used to be mentally drained for at least a day or so after every visit.  Sometimes it still really takes it out of me to see her this way while knowing that there is much worse to come.  But as I have worked through my grieving process for my old mom, I have learned to try to find a bit of  joy in our moments together as I search for her old self within her.  I like to think maybe my real mom is in there and it will just take me doing or saying just the right thing to get a piece of her back, even if just for a minute.

I looked out the door as she was getting out of the minivan. He usually lets her come up the sidewalk by herself .  Thank God she had her teeth in — my stomach sank at first when I couldn’t tell. Any casual observer would  think nothing of this.  Until she gets to my door.  She reaches for the door, then she stops and stares at me blankly.  Then today, in response to my hello, she said “hi” in her familiar mom tone.  (Hearing her old voice at the beginning of a conversation used to make me think maybe I just dreamed this whole thing.) At any rate, this was much better than her usual shoulder shrug.  I breathed a sigh of content.

As I walked her into the kitchen, the family history notebook she put together years ago was on the counter.  Secretly I was hoping she would recognize it. Maybe it could be the spark for today?  She spent a few years compiling it about 20 years ago and it is ever so thorough, with ancestry charts, old letters my grandfather sent home from WWII, newspaper articles, birth announcements and the like.

I point to it and explain to her that it’s the family history book that she put together years ago.  I told her how helpful it was for my youngest son’s school project last night.  She looked at me puzzled and said, “I did?”  I pointed out photos of her parents and her sister and she gave me a look that was both puzzled and blank at the same time. But I wasn’t giving up.

I motioned for her to sit down as I helped her understand the chair.  I let her thumb through some pages on her own. Maybe the pages would feel familiar?  I showed her the  photos of all of the houses her parents had lived in.  Photos have worked a little before. I narrated as I walked her though the book .  She was more intent than I have seen her in months.  I told her that I would be right back and I ran upstairs to answer a quick email for work.  I do this occasionally with ears perked in case she opens the front door in search of my step dad.  She is always looking for him when she is at my house, as though she thinks he’s in the house or just outside. She is much more at ease when he is at her side, which warms my heart like an old love story.

I started getting anxious and quickly jogged down the stairs, worried that I had taken too long.  To my surprise, I found her still sitting in same spot very intently thumbing through each page over and over and back and forth.  She looked content and engaged.

When my step dad arrived to pick her up she pointed at the picture of herself in a newspaper article when she was one of the beauty queens at her college.  She told him “That’s me” and smiled her cute little smile.

My heart sang.

On the second page of this 200 page family history notebook of my mother’s ancestry, it reads:

“I wish I had been more interested in what my parents told me about their families and early years.  I put this history together in the hopes that the knowledge and memories I have would not be forgotten.”

And for this I am grateful.

Never say never. Gratitude Experiment: Day 12

Sometimes it’s the people who you would never expect to surprise you that do just that.  I’m sure I used the word never more than a few times in high school, during my self-focused adolescent furies.  Mostly about my stepdad and how I thought we would never get along, much less like each other.

My stepdad entered my life in the early eighties. I was part of the package when he married my Mom – the youngest kid still at home, very bummed that big sis had moved on and left me there stranded. I think my stepdad and I both started counting down the days until my exit as soon as the vows were exchanged.

I wasn’t his biggest fan in those days and he certainly wasn’t mine (I shudder at the thought of what a jerk I probably was). For the most part, we managed to mutually exist in order to keep the peace for my Mom. I didn’t touch his stuff and he didn’t touch mine.  My mother had to pay the price if we did. And I’m still convinced that my cat’s disappearance wasn’t as random as it was said to be.  She had a way of throwing up on his bright white Buick Regal with a navy blue vinyl top at precisely the moment he finished waxing it and walked away.   I would have high-fived her little white paw if I could have.

Those were not fun days. And luckily I ended up with a boyfriend who was equally as thrilled about his new step parent situation as I was. It was a perfect match at the time and it got us both through high school relatively unscathed.

As the years went on and my mother faced her own struggles in the face of losing my sister, my stepdad was there for her like no other. I gained a whole new level of respect for this man and for the size of his heart as he stood beside her. Over the years we became part of team Mom, working together instead of against each other in support of my fragile and hard to understand mother.

Her Alzheimer’s diagnosis many years later launched our improved relationship into overdrive, forming a strategic alliance with the strength of a small army.  At my suggestion, we moved them closer to me so that I could help, and he has taken my lead on just about everything.  I try not to let that thought keep me up at night as I don’t feel grown up enough yet myself to have someone look to me for so many decisions.

I never understood what my mom saw in him back in the day, but now it’s quite clear. I witness it every time I help out with my Mom. Just Friday I noticed he had to remove all of the knobs from the stove.  He’s had to install all key locks on the doors.  And he’s had to get good at hiding things he doesn’t want to disappear (we’ve learned the hard way). He has adjusted to their new life without a complaint.

This man — who had most likely never cooked meals before, never cleaned a house, never handled organizing doctor and vet appointments, probably never dressed or bathed his own kids — now does all of these things for my mother.  I am in awe of his grace and strength.  We have a silent, understood mutual appreciation for each other.  We recognize each other’s capes and the irony of our new found closeness.

They say hard times can make people shine brighter than any star.   And for this I am grateful.