Love Language

As I imagine many bloggers do, I keep a list of ideas for blog posts. On that list is ‘language shortcuts and phrases between family, friends.’ Given how long it’s been on my list, I’m not sure what I was going to say about it, but it might have been something like this eloquent and lovely post by my sister.

Not Inclined To Resign To Maturity

Love languages have been on my mind lately, in part because of Skype conversations with my oldest sister, Melissa. We haven’t actually discussed love or love languages, but what we have done is engaged in amusing ways to say goodbye to each other as we sign off each Monday and Thursday after our work sessions.

Our love language started pretty early on in our lives. There are four of us siblings, and we only have five years separating us oldest to youngest, so we are pretty close, not only in age, but in all things. Time and distance never takes that away. Anyway, Melissa, as oldest, often had ways to entertain the rest of us. One of the earliest ‘love language’ incidents that I can recall is that of ‘bunnies and squirrels.’ Melissa and I were the bunnies, and Barry and Susan were the squirrels. I assume the determination of…

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CorcoranBToday would have been my mother’s ???? birthday. (If you’re wondering if I know when my mother was born and how old she would have been today, the answer is yes, I know, but she said she’d come back and haunt us if we revealed her age.) In her honor, I am posting an edited version of the eulogy I gave at her recent funeral.

“Vroom vroom, she’s coming around the curve, she speeds into the straightaway.”

That was my mom, playing ‘racecar driver’ after Sunday Mass. She would start her race commentary at a specific intersection on our street and continue it until our house. It was a routine we loved and asked for often, but my mom, being smart, didn’t do it every week—it was a treat we enjoyed all the more because it wasn’t a given.

This is not the only memory I have of my mother driving. There was the time when she and I drove my sister Nancy to Denver for her freshman year of college, then drove to St. Louis to visit my brother. In a role reversal, it was Mom who was speeding down the highway; when she asked me to keep on eye on the billboards for a motel, I said, “well, I would, Mom, but they’re a blur.” Then there were her car trips to see my sister Susan in another city; Mom’s trip times got progressively shorter over the years. We’re pretty sure she started lying about what time she left home so my sisters wouldn’t know just how fast she was driving!

This was part of the person my mom was—speed demon, college graduate, Girl Scout leader, traveler, adventurer, social worker, Catholic, choir member, friend, grandmother, mother.

My siblings and I have many memories of Mom’s years in the Girl Scouts. She began as a troop leader with the girls a year younger than me and there were many weekend camping trips in which the whole family joined. She was a camp counselor in the summers and eventually became a trainer, attending workshops in other states. I am proud of the fact that Mom was a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts and I like to think of the positive influence she had on a generation of girls.

When my siblings and I were in grade school, Mom started taking courses at the local community college. It took her five or six years to accumulate credits equivalent to two years of college. My senior year of high school, Mom started full-time at a nearby university. I remember her sitting at the dining room table, crying over her statistics homework, but it didn’t stop her. Her graduation was a family celebration of her accomplishment.

After several years of working at a hospital as a social worker, Mom applied for and was granted a Rotary Club Scholarship. That sent her to Wellington, New Zealand for ten months. She had classes to attend, but took advantage of her school vacations to explore New Zealand and Australia, making friends with whom she exchanged visits for many years.

After I completed my first Danskin sprint triathlon, I challenged my mother and sisters to join me in participating the next year. Mom went back to the gym and started training. During that time, she had a couple of bike accidents that probably would have broken the bones and/or resolve of someone else. Not Mom—she continued training and with my sisters and me, completed the triathlon. Whenever someone at work or the gym would say he or she didn’t think they could do a triathlon, I’d say, “well, if my 69-year-old mother could do it….” That tended to shut them up!

There were a couple of areas of Mom’s expertise that I found frustrating, only because I didn’t inherit those talents. One is that she had a green thumb—her African violets were the envy of many and her houseplants thrived. As someone whose horticultural accomplishments peak at keeping a cactus alive, I was envious. The other area was music. I can’t carry a tune but Mom sang and played the piano. It was one of the joys of her life to sing in her church choir and it was extra special to her when her two older grandsons joined the choir and sang with her.

Back to that race car routine. I thought of it during my recent stay in Italy because, after years of being an uber-cautious driver, I think I may be turning into my mother, at least when I am in Italy, where I seem to have become rather fearless. It’s a cultural joke with negative connotations to say ‘oh dear, I’m turning into my mother,’ but in reality, there are worse things to be than a leader, traveler, adventurer, friend.

Grief in the twilight zone

Last Mother’s Day, I wrote about the twilight zone my mother was in as a result of dementia and how my siblings and I and our relationship with her were also in that twilight zone. By this Mother’s Day just past, our mother was dead and I find I’m still in a twilight zone of sorts.

When my father died unexpectedly several years ago, I was overwhelmed with grief, sometimes sobbing uncontrollably in those first days after his death.

With my mother, it has been different. This is due in part to the long slow lead-up to her death. At every care conference for the last 18 months, one of the professionals in attendance has told us that dementia is a progressive, fatal disease. There was no attempt to give us a timeline, but there was no sugarcoating either.

However, if you had asked any of us this past Christmas how Mom was, we would have said physically stronger than she had been in a year, able to read and somewhat comprehend books and the daily newspaper, and conversing rationally at times. We knew the dementia was still there, but the decline seemed to have reached a plateau of sorts.

When she got an infection in late winter, though, it was the beginning of the end. By April, the care center recommended hospice, which started a couple of weeks before her death. When the end came, it came swiftly, for which I am grateful.

And that’s the twilight zone. I did not want my mother to die, but I did not want her to live the way she was living, either. If she had continued as she was at Christmas, it might have been okay for a time, but when she was no longer eating and drinking and starting to have trouble recognizing family members, we saw how ugly dementia could get and how ugly it was for families whose loved ones have been in that stage for months and years.

My sister referred in a post on her blog to the devil of dementia and this state of mixed emotions is one of those devils. Even before the dementia, I am not sure my mother and I ever would have had any kind of resolution or reconciliation in our relationship, but dementia robbed us of that chance, as it robbed her of herself in many ways, and as it is robbing me now of the kind of heartfelt grief I had with my dad’s death. When I say to myself I wish my mother back, I know I am saying that I wish back the woman I knew as a child and a teenager and a young woman. I cannot wish her back only to have her suffer, as I know she did, the devil of dementia.

In the early morning hours after my mother’s death, jet-lagged and exhausted, I was in that half-awake / half-asleep stage when one doesn’t know if one is dreaming or thinking. The only word for what occurred is a vision, where I saw my mother breaking out of her body as it had been and standing there as she was many years ago. I like to think that is what has happened to her mind and heart and soul and that now she is whole and at peace.

In a twilight zone

On Facebook today, I saw messages from children of all ages to their mothers, wishing them a happy Mother’s Day. Several were accompanied by photos of mother and child with arms around each other and smiles on their faces. Other Facebook friends posted remembrances of their deceased mothers. I wished I could have posted something but I did not know what to say because the situation for me and my siblings is betwixt and between—our mother is alive, but she has dementia. She is in a twilight zone and in many ways, we, and our relationship with her, are also in that twilight zone.

I will not pretend that I have been close to my mother for the last fifteen to twenty years. She and my dad were wonderful parents when we are growing up and I know I was lucky  to have the wise, disciplined, and loving parenting they provided. But over the years, my mother changed emotionally and mentally and her refusal to acknowledge or seek treatment for those changes was draining. Although I spoke with, emailed, and visited her, I removed myself emotionally to avoid being sucked down with her. But however complicated my adult relationship with her has been, I would not wish what has happened to her on my worst enemy.

When my brother became her guardian a year ago, there was a faint hope that our mother would be able to move from her ‘independent with in-home care’ living situation, which had become untenable, to assisted living, but within a matter of weeks, it became clear she was not a candidate for that. Her physician and the geriatric social worker we consulted recommended a local Alzheimer’s care center. Even then, we hoped that after the initial evaluation period, she would be able to move to a unit that was more like assisted living than the unit she was admitted to, and is in now, but that was not to be.

We have learned, both from the staff and our own experience, that dementia is not reversible; that the most one can hope for is to halt it in its tracks or slow its progress. Thanks to her doctor, the line was held for a few months, but now, our mother is slipping away before our eyes. Given some of her other issues, I am not sure she and I ever would have had any kind of resolution or reconciliation in our relationship, but now there is no chance, nor will there ever be. All we can do is watch over her, make sure she is safe and well-cared for, and appreciate that for now, she usually knows who we are when we visit.

So today, my sisters and I visited her with cards and flowers and cupcakes and gave her pretty mint-green sheets for her bed. We sat around a table in the dining area, talking with her, sometimes talking around her because she zones out easily. Before we left, my brother-in-law took a photo of us three girls around her. Now I look at that photo and my heart breaks that the vibrant, intelligent, articulate woman I knew is no longer with us.

Aunt Melissa

My sister was babysitting her six-month old grandson for a long weekend recently and invited me to her place for a couple of days to join in the fun. The time spent with my great-nephew made me realize again all the ways in which I enjoy being an aunt.

My nephews and niece and I have our own traditions. Once they were at toddler stage, we began the practice, when I visited, of my taking them out for an excursion, sans parents. One year, we had a sibling vacation in Boston and I took the two older boys (six and four) and my niece (two) to a movie and lunch. We were walking back to my apartment when we passed FAO Schwarz and I took them inside. To quote a co-worker to whom I told this story, ‘what was I thinking?!’ It was a little crazy inside with massive amounts of stimuli but we did okay until it was time to leave. I shepherded them out the revolving door only to find I was short one child. I had the two boys clamp their hands around one of the stanchions outside the door and made them promise not to move until I returned. I raced back inside to find that my niece had been captivated by the wind-up toys in action near the door and stopped to watch them. Sheesh—I was wiped-out from stress for the rest of the day! And as you can tell, scarred because that was over 20 years ago and I still get a clutch in the heart when I think of it!

When my oldest nephew started college, I joined him and his parents at the school to help him move in and get settled. That was a start of another tradition, which is to show up for, and participate in, the college move-in for each one of them. Two of my nephews have attended my alma mater, so I’ve had the added fun of revisiting the campus and seeing it through their eyes. I still have one more college trip to look forward to.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that just as I treat them differently than their parents do, the reverse is true. When my sister several years ago told her boys that she was thinking of getting a tattoo, they were appalled. When I said the same thing some weeks later, the reaction was ‘cool, what would you get?’ (For the record, I didn’t get a tattoo.)

My sisters and I have often talked about how genetic material seems to have jumped sideways. For example, one of my nephews approaches a museum the same way his uncle does—as if he’s studying for the exam. My oldest nephew and I have the same rent-a-fact ‘business’ (being the oldest teaches you to speak authoritatively, even if you don’t know what you are talking about!). Then there are the things that make you wonder if the child is in fact related to you—one of my nephews does not like chocolate and one of my great-nephews wakes up with a smile on his face.

One thing I find a little disconcerting is how well they know some of the stories from my and my siblings’ childhood. Once at my mom’s house, we pulled out the bun warmer to put some rolls in it and the boys knew all about how the dent got there (my brother and I were throwing around pots and pans during an argument). I think the story they know best, though, is the story of how, when I was in high school, I drove an hour out of the way to get to a skating rink ten minutes from our house. Now whenever I’m trying to navigate to a place, I hear ‘life is an adventure, right, Aunt Melissa?’ because that’s what I used to say to my sisters when I was lost. It’s all so embarrassing!

My nephews and niece may not know this even now, but since they were babies, my friends and co-workers have listened to stories about how clever, how charming, how cute they are and looked at innumerable photos.

There are roles we embrace, roles we discard, roles that change over the years. Through it all, my role as aunt has brought me much joy, so here’s looking at you, kids: Andrew, Michael, Paige, Nicholas, and Benjamin.

Photo of boys and Paige_cropped