Category Archives: Aging

Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can be Batman…Then Be Batman

I was getting a massage today when my massage therapist asked about my dad.  I’ve told her quite a bit about the situation with my father over the last six months because it is such a major source of stress.

Yes…I talk during massages, which I know is odd, but I fall asleep if I just silently lay there and I’m not going to sleep through something I paid for, so…

Did you notice the title of my blog is …because it’s hard to shut me up?

I talk…a lot.

But I digress…

My massage therapist asked about my dad and I told her all about my last visit with my dad, which was really good, and my mom’s last encounter with my dad which was not good at all.  My dad became very agitated and began demanding to know why he can’t live at home with my mom. We’ve explained this to him multiple times and he never remembers, and while explaining it again really isn’t a problem, he doesn’t want to hear it. No one wants to hear that they are so demented and feeble that they require more care than their loved ones can provide, let alone that they can’t come home because they are violent and uncontrollable.

My heart breaks for my mom, who bears the brunt of his anger. At the same time, I am beginning to wonder if frequent visits, originally meant to keep my dad from feeling lonely, are actually making him agitated and uncomfortable.

Mom and I discussed the situation earlier this week after he yelled and cursed at her for refusing to take him home. My mother worries that he’ll never get out of the behavioral unit at his memory care facility. I worry that we’ll never manage to find the right balance of visits and absences, which will force us to stop visiting just so that he can stop having episodes of agitation and violence.

There are times when I genuinely fear that I will never get to see my father again.

I realize that there is nothing preventing me from visiting my father. It’s not like the Lord posted an angel with a flaming sword at the door. (I mean, the memory care facility is nice, but it’s not that nice.)*  The thing is that I want my father to be happy, to have some modicum of joy in his life, and I am willing to give up my visits with him if that is what will make his life the most joyful.  If my mother’s visits are what is causing his agitation, I am willing to be the only one visiting him even though that increases the amount of time I will need to spend visiting him. And I am committed to supporting my mother in her partial or total withdrawal from my father because no one deserves to be pummeled with verbal abuse and threats of violence.

I explained all this to my massage therapist, and that is when she got a bit teary eyed and said very nice things about me. She called me thoughtful and compassionate and a whole lot of other very nice things.  I appreciated her words, but that has very little to do with my thoughts and feelings about visiting my dad.

What does?  Authenticity.

What does that have to do with my dad?

Let me explain.

Being authentic is about constantly embodying who I am and who I want to be in the world. I know who I am, both good and bad, and I know who I want to be as a pastor, counselor, friend, wife, mother, and daughter.

When I am trying to decide what to do about my dad and how I want to be with my dad, I ask myself: Who am I in relationship? Who do I want to be as a daughter? What do I believe that good daughters do and how should I express that?

Notice I didn’t say “What do good daughters do?” because that question gets answered with a lot of BS from culture, society, church, and all the other systems that I participate in that want to lay claim on the role of ‘daughter’. I am not interested in what other people think. I want to be a good daughter to my father, and that means that I need to remember what matters to me.

Again, let me explain. Society tells us that good daughters visit their dads regularly because not doing so means that you are abandoning your parent in their old age. Society says that good daughters encourage their fathers to eat healthy and exercise so that they live a long life.

I believe that good daughters love their elderly fathers enough to attend to their father’s needs, even if that means that things are not the way the daughter wants them to be. If that means that we visit weekly, so be it. If that means we only visit once a month, so be it. If that means that Daddy lives in his PJs and eats cookies for every meal, so be it. My vanity and my needs for things to look or appear some certain way is meaningless. My desire to have my dad be healthy and live as long as possible is meaningless. What matters is that my dad needs to have a little joy in his life again before he dies. He hasn’t had much joy for quite a few months now, so a little joy before he dies is my goal as a daughter, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else (except my mother) thinks ought to be happening.  And when it comes to my mother, I encourage her to think about her own needs and not just my father’s needs, because she has spent the last nine years as a caregiver, putting Daddy’s needs first, and that has to stop. My dad is in a memory care facility now. Someone else takes care of Daddy’s daily needs and my mom needs to return her primary interest to herself so that she can have a little joy too. My mom needs to find a meaningful life alone, separate from her husband, whom she has served for 54 years.  My mom and dad have differing needs, and I—as their daughter—need to be mindful of both so that I can be a good daughter to both of them.

Does all that sound exhausting? Sometimes it is, and many of you may be thinking that I have bought into the cultural BS of the ‘Good Daughter who Sacrifices for her Parents’. Of course, you are free to think that. Personally, that’s not where I am.  I want to know that when I look in the mirror at the end of the day, and it’s just me, my reflection, and my God, that I have been who God created me to be in this world. My job here is to be authentically me…and for me, being a good daughter to both my parents matters a lot, just like being a good mom to both my daughters matters a lot.

Thank God I only have one husband!

So for this week, being a good daughter means that I call the social worker at the memory care facility and discuss what to do when visitation seems to be the cause of agitation. I’m betting that the social worker will have some suggestions and that together we can figure out a plan to help both my mom and dad find a little joy in every day.  If not, well, at least I tried my best to do what I believe a good daughter would do. And at the end of the day, that’s all the comfort I have to give myself.

So far, it works for me.

And as for being a good Christian, I take my comfort from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus appears to be cranky, impulsive, emotional, and irascible.  If the goal is to be Christlike, I do believe that I am almost there, which is probably a blog post for a different day.

Until that day…

*  Remember the Garden of Eden?  See Genesis 3:23-24.

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Quack!!!

So here we are…it is Holy Week again, and this year I am not quite ready.

The last two months have been really hard on me. I lost a very close friend to cancer after spending months doing everything I could to take care of her and her family. And then on 1/29/18, my father fell and broke all the bones in his face, advancing his dementia in ways I never imagined. He will not be allowed to live at home with my mother in his home ever again, and he will never be the man he was on January 28th, 2018.

I am grieving in more ways than you can imagine.

But this season, while grief-filled and painful, has been truly good for me.

I needed to remember that God resurrects everything to a new and different life, to a life that couldn’t be imagined before death, to a life that only Heaven owns.

My grief is so overwhelming that I cannot seem to see beyond the grief and the pain. I look at my friend’s family and at my own family and wonder how we will ever go on. I don’t quite understand how we are supposed to smile again, to laugh again, to feel like life is good again.

And then, out of the blue, someone reminds me of what it is that God lends us to deal with all our pain.

I went to see my massage therapist this morning because my last appointment, only a week ago, revealed that my body is telling the tale of all the stress I’ve endured since Christmas. She asked me to book another appointment with her as soon as possible, even though I normally book an appointment with her only once every three weeks. After her recommendation, I booked another appointment only 7 days after I’d last seen her, knowing that it would be 14 days after that before I could see her again.

She and I talked this morning about all of my stress and everything that was weighing on her heart, since she has children and children always weigh on our hearts.  Her sons are becoming teenagers, and I found myself sharing all I learned when my daughters became teenagers and so much went wrong. I shared about the group of people that saved my daughter, my relationship with my husband, and my entire family.

My massage therapist fixes my body and improves my life, and I do what I can to give her tools to heal her own body and fix her life. Our gifts differ just enough that we are able to help each other at the same time.

During my massage, as I related all the things that have happened with my mother and father since I last saw my massage therapist I realized something really crucial.

I have lost my sense of humor when it comes to my dad.

My family deals with almost everything with humor, even when we have to use black humor that other people would frown on, just so that we can get through difficult times.

My mother and I have watched my father lose his wits, his mind, his sense of self, and his self-control. He has threatened my mother and assaulted his caregivers (medical and otherwise) until we had to resort to extreme measures to help him. After 3 weeks in a psych ward and much medication, we thought we might have finally recovered my father…the man we all miss, the person we wish were with us instead of the violent, unruly, mentally unwell man who woke up after breaking all his facial bones.

Nope.

Not. Even. Close.

The situation has broken my heart and strained my relationship with my father. There is only so much hatred and threat that I can listen to before the child in me wants to run away. I cannot hear my father threaten my mother…not for long. I was so excited, anticipating the man that we would receive when he came home from the psych unit medicated and peaceful; for a hot minute it seemed that we had found the man we knew and loved and then…disaster!

It was during my massage, talking with the woman who restores my body, that I realized that I had abandoned the coping mechanism that restores my mind.

Humor.  I have lost my humor when it comes to my father’s behavior.

I could argue that there isn’t anything funny about physically assaulting my family or the nursing staff. I could swear that there is nothing to laugh at when you are facing horrific levels of liability for the damage done to some tiny woman who chose to provide care to those who are aged and losing their memory.  And there is nothing funny about a man who thinks his family has abandoned him, that we have left him to die when he needs us most, despite the fact that we are making the best possible choices for his care that we can, even when the care we choose comes at considerable cost and sacrifice for the family.

The situation isn’t funny at all.

And yet…

Why aren’t I allowed to laugh? Why aren’t I allowed to be silly, unreasonable, unaccepting of the tragedy that I cannot escape?  My mother laughs at the tragedy of her chronic illness. I laugh at the tragedy that I inherited from that illness and the fact that I get sicker every day. I laugh with my daughters when they report that they also inherited these illnesses, since we have only once choice: laugh, or cry. We laugh about what we cannot change, or instead we choose to weep daily, soaking in our tragedy.

I. Choose. Laughter.

No matter how much it all hurts, I choose laughter. No matter how much the whole situation sucks, I choose laughter. Laughter has gotten me through so much loss in the past that I know it will not fail me now.

God invented laughter, and I truly believe that just before he committed his spirit to God, that Christ looked down on all the Centurions gathered at his feet and laughed.  Those foolish children believed that they could kill the one and only son of God; they believed that they would win and that Jesus had no chance of succeeding. What a disappointment…and what a blessing!

When I look at the history of my Savior, I choose laughter.

When I visit my father and he is fixated on his anger at my mother, I have decided to start quacking like a duck to distract him.  When I quack like a duck I am going to remind him that I cannot change my mother’s choices and that I really want to know about him, about his new life, about his new friends and his new domicile. I want to tell him about my own life, about my own children (that he doesn’t recognize anymore) and my ministry.

I may have to quack like a duck every 10 seconds to keep him focused on something other than the life he has lost; the life that makes him angry and violent. I’m good with that. I’ll quack as often as I need to in order to unsettle him, to distract my dad from his fixation on my mom and his beliefs about her unfaithfulness and bad behavior. In the end, all I want is a father that I can relate to, separate from his beliefs about my mother. I cannot hear his hatred, anger, and judgment about my mom anymore. It is toxic to my soul, since his thoughts are all based in fear and delusion.

I am going to quack like a duck because it makes me laugh, and it just might work.

Please pray for ducks to assist me, and for God to make mercy for my father out of ducks and humor.

By the way, I found an awesome shirt that refers to raccoons as “Trash Pandas”, bears as “Death Floofs” and bunnies as “Boople Snoots”. I need that kind of humor, and so I am choosing to quack like a duck and smile when I think of “Boople Snoots”. I’ll let you know how it works.

Thank you for your prayers for my family. I know that you are praying because there is no such thing as Christians who read about pain and don’t pray. I appreciate you more than you know, even when I don’t know your name.  Blessings!

Demented Perfection

Dementia.

That word strikes fear into the heart of anyone who hears it spoken either in reference to themselves or to their loved ones.  Dementia is a strange death sentence in that it steals your life but leaves you alive; you or your loved one becomes a shell of themselves, unable to think clearly, unable to remember their loved ones, unable to be and do the very things that make them who they are.

And yet I wonder…

Does dementia strip us to our very core, eliminating everything but the nut of who we are? Or does dementia choose for us who we will be? Does dementia twist us out of our own personality and being into some caricature of ourselves, leaving our family with someone who looks just like us but acts like a total stranger?

I ask these things because I am losing my father by degrees, even though he still looks the same.

Only 30 days ago I could talk to my father over coffee and know who he was. He would complain about my mom at length, but eventually he would ask me about my daughters and my husband; he would ask me about my counseling practice and my ministry. We could laugh about the past and tell stories about his childhood and mine.  His stroke in 2009 may have stolen some of his ability to speak, but it didn’t steal his ability to communicate his love and who he was. My father still had his sense of humor and his concern for our entire family.

In late January 2018, my father fainted, fell, and broke all the bones in his face. The injury was so severe that it advanced his dementia dramatically; he lost both physical and mental abilities. The ten days he spent in the hospital made it clear that my father was so demented that my mother would never be able to bring him back home. After a short stay in a skilled nursing facility for physical therapy, we placed my father in a memory care center.***

Sadly, ever since about seven days after his hospitalization, my father has had only one thought: my mother, and why she isn’t taking him home. His anger increases by the day and so does his agitation. I tried bringing my two dogs to visit my dad at the memory care center so that he had something else to focus on, but he continued to have a one-track mind. The staff have been unable to derail his thought process; I have been unable to derail his thought process; sadly, my mom’s visits have done nothing but increase his anger and aggressiveness.

To put this in plain language, when my mom shows up he threatens to beat her severely and has even threatened to kill her several times.

The whole thing just might kill me.

I live in fear that one day dementia will take me down this path and I will suddenly become a monster that terrorizes my own family; I fear that my words will become weapons and I will become a burden they ought not to bear, not even for love.

This is why I wonder if dementia decides who we will be, or if we are simply stripped to our core.

If dementia decides for us, there is much to be afraid of but little to do, except try to remain optimally healthy with low cholesterol numbers and CRP (C Reactive Protein) counts. After all, if dementia decides who we will be then we can only hope to avoid dementia and the various diseases that cause it (strokes, other brain injuries, Parkinson’s, etc.)

On the other hand…and of course, this is the option that causes me even more pain…

I am not even going to attempt to understand how this violence and anger can be all that was at my father’s core. It is very painful to think about, and it wouldn’t change anything or make what is happening easier to bear.

So…

If dementia strips us to the very core, to the nut of our personality, then it is time to examine what sits in the center…the sin, self-centeredness, and cruelty that we try to hide from anyone and everyone. No matter how much I love Jesus and how faithfully I serve, I am only human and there is nothing good in the center, if you know what I mean. I am constantly aware of my own failure and the unkind thoughts that rise in me with every demand to serve or to set myself aside. I am painfully aware of who I am, and the sinfulness to undergirds that. Thinking that this is what my family will face if I am stripped to my core by dementia is terrifying! I never want to be that person, not to anyone else and definitely not to the people I love the most.

This is when I become aware of how important it is to consistently submit to Christ and to the work of sanctifying grace.  I find great comfort in the thought that I can let the Holy Spirit and grace so transform me that nothing but grace will be left at the center; that in the absence of any other part of my personality, what will be left is love, kindness, and mercy. Strangely, I find comfort in the idea of sitting in a memory care unit, sweetly thanking my caregivers and my family, even when I no longer know who they are.

I suppose that I should be grateful that I had this realization while I am still relatively young and healthy, while I am still able to allow Jesus to transform me from the inside out. For that, I thank my father, because I might not have realized this otherwise.

Having said that, I am also praying for a strange dichotomy to occur in my mind. I want to consign my father’s behavior to dementia’s choice so that I can keep visiting him and love him despite his behavior and the pain it causes me. I also want to remain thoroughly convinced that I need to be transformed at the very center to avoid my father’s fate, so that I do not give up the quest for sanctifying grace and Christian perfection in this life.  And if my father’s legacy is that he causes me to seek after grace and perfection, that would be a fitting tribute to his life, don’t you think?

 

***  We were assisted by SeniorPlanning.org, an organization that helps families with a variety of housing needs for seniors who cannot live without assistance. They charge no fees to the family and are comprehensive in their services. I cannot recommend them highly enough and encourage you to take the time to acquaint yourself with them. They are sensitive to each family’s needs and do not try to fit every family into the same solution. Their help saved us weeks of trying to find our way to the right memory care facility for my father.

 

And She Kept Dancing

Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.

To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing.  I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.

Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.

One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness.  We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.

Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off.  You can’t keep dancing in that coat!”  And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.

Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent.  Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained.  In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life.  We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused.  The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.

The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life?  Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve.  Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.

And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life.  And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again.  Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time!  One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability.  Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing.  Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.

At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance.  And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay?  Are you sure that you’re okay?!”  But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone.  She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going.  I’ll be fine.”

Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.

Death votes for life every single time.

Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.

I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go.  I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.

 

**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.

***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.

Sing Along With Me

Last week, as I was leaving a family dinner at my parent’s house, my Dad hugged me and said quickly “We need to talk.”  He sounded concerned, and so I decided to take him out for coffee later that week so that we could have some privacy.  My Dad is retired and has dementia, so he is home with my Mom 99% of the time; because he can no longer drive, his life has become limited to the things he can do with my mother.  I figured that my Mom could use some time alone, and my Dad could use an excuse to get out of the house, so we set a date to go out for coffee.

By the time I could get to my parent’s house to pick up my father, he had already had two cups of coffee and really didn’t feel like having more caffeine, so instead we opted for a late lunch.  I gave him several options, but his dementia kept interfering with the conversation.  After about three rounds of asking him to pick what kind of food he wanted for lunch, I finally blurted out  “Tacos or salad?” and he quickly replied “Are you crazy? Tacos!”  I’m still learning how to effectively communicate through the fog of his dementia.

While we were still on the way to our lunch, I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he opened by saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.”  My standard response to anyone who says such a thing to me is “It doesn’t matter what I want to hear, if what you’re saying needs to be said.”

I should have kept my mouth shut.

For the next 10 minutes, I had to fight to overcome the urge to put my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”

What is it with older parents who suddenly start revealing deeply personal things to their children?  For several years now I have thought perhaps my parents were just unusually candid, but recently a colleague told me that her father has been making similarly shocking (and occasionally unwelcome) revelations to her.

It must be one of the provisions of joining AARP: Once you get over 65, you must overshare with your adult children.

The funny thing is that until recently, I thought that my parent’s habit of oversharing was simply an extension of their honesty with me when I was a teenager. My parents never hid the truth from me about their own teenage mistakes, challenges, and outright failures; my parents believed that I could learn from their life lessons without having to repeat them myself.  Even back then, before I realized how rare it was to receive such a gift of honesty from my parents, I greatly appreciated their candidness.  Please understand, I was not one of those saintly teenagers who never gives their parent’s any problems.  The truth is that I was an obnoxious teenager (especially during my freshman year of college) and I know that I tested the limits of their patience many, many times. Despite that, I valued my relationship with my parents and respected them. Hearing stories about their struggles with self-esteem, or the social cost of refusing to go out drinking with their friends, or the ways they were singled out as nerds because they valued learning…it made it easier for me to believe that high school only seemed like it would last forever. It made it easier for me to believe that one day I would find my group and discover that I was perfectly normal.  The idea that I would one day ‘fit in’ was balm to my incredibly nerdy, chubby, over-achieving, academically-focused self.

Let’s not discuss the fact that I am still nerdy, chubby, and a notorious over-achiever; the only reason I’m not currently academically focused is because I’m not in school anymore. I have, however, found my people and feel like I am relatively normal.  The fact that I found a husband who is almost exactly like me…except for the chubby part…has made a huge difference as well.

Back to my parents.

So there I was, in the car with my Dad, listening to him say things that in all actuality I did not want to hear. Let’s just say that his sharing was intensely personal.  All I could do was listen, because I didn’t have any good advice for him; I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s experiencing right now.  I’m 53 years old and in relatively good health. My father is 76 and he has vascular dementia; the stroke that brought this on happened eight years ago.  He has been slowly losing himself ever since, and the loss gets greater and faster every day.  That’s what dementia does: it steals your “Self.” You think you know who you used to be and who you are now, but what you think you know keeps shifting and changing and getting lost in the haze that fills your memory.  Dementia steals your ability to observe yourself and your performance; it keeps you from honestly admitting to all that you cannot do and from understanding how your deficit impacts those around you.  Consequently, my father cannot drive anymore and he blames my mother for that even though he failed to pass a driving evaluation designed to evaluate people with dementia. My father cannot travel anymore because he becomes disoriented and afraid in unfamiliar places, but he swears that he and my mom don’t travel because she doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t remember his own behaviors towards my mother over the last few years (or months, actually) and so he can’t understand why she reacts to him the way she does when he raises his voice.  Dementia has stolen the life my father imagined that he and my mother would have after he retired, and now dementia is even stealing his past.  During our lunch together I was stunned to discovered that my father is forgetting key details of his parent’s lives, which tells me how advanced his dementia has become. Any attempts on my part to jog his memory and try to remind him of the history that I remember (especially the things that have occurred in his family since I became an adult) only serve to frustrate and anger him.

I sat in the car, listening to all my Dad had to say, feeling helpless to relieve his emotional distress and helpless to stop things from getting even worse.

Just as we got to the restaurant my father turned to me and said “I know that I shouldn’t tell you these things, but I feel safe telling them to you.”  He could barely look at me.

So I looked at him and said “Daddy, you tell me anything you want to tell me. You get no judgment from me, no matter what.  I’ll always be here to listen to you.”

This is all my father has to give me now.  He can give me his truth, no matter how twisted and ill-remembered it is.  He can’t help me fix things around the house anymore because he can’t follow instructions.  He can’t give me good advice because he can’t keep his own wisdom from getting twisted up with vague memories and everything comes out wrong.  There is so much that he can’t do for me, and so many, many things that I cannot really do for him either.  But neither of us needs the other to do anything, really.

Maybe all that is left for us to do is to listen.

My Dad can tell me things that he knows I don’t want to hear because he knows that I am safe, and that word means more to me than I can tell you.  My Daddy trusts me, and that is the greatest gift he could possibly give me.

My prayer today is that God grant us each someone safe to share our truth with, and that God make us a safe space for someone who needs to say the words they know that no one wants to hear.

Amen.

The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.