© Copyright 2017 by Dale Fehringer
Many of us are faced with challenges as our loved ones age. Sometimes, there is a way around those problems.
Gina knew there was something wrong as soon as she walked through the door. Her mother hadn’t put away the breakfast dishes, and the coffee pot was still turned on. That wasn’t usual. And her mother was sitting in the living room, by herself, instead of bustling around the house, as was her usual behavior.
“Mom, are you OK?” she asked.
“Come in the living room,” her mother answered. “Come sit with me. How was your day?”
“It was OK, mom.” But are you OK? You haven’t even cleaned up the breakfast dishes.
“I’m OK, but we need to talk. But first, tell me how you are.”
“I’m tired.” Gina told her. “Work was busy today, and when I got home Jason was asking questions about the news and why people are saying such angry and hateful things on TV. He’s really confused and needs answers to his questions. But I’m so busy and tired I just don’t have the energy to devote time to him. And I’m so out of breath now that even the smallest exercise is hard. I got winded just coming up your steps.”
“That’s what kids do … ask questions,” her mom said. “Sometimes there aren’t answers, and sometimes you just have to tell them that there are hateful people in the world, but not in your family.
But I’m worried about your heart. Did you call your cardiologist?”
“Not yet,” Gina didn’t want to have this conversation again. “She charges so much, and our health insurance doesn’t cover office visits. And, anyway, I can’t take time off for surgery. But each day I wake up feeling weak and helpless. I want to feel better, to be stronger, and to not be out-of-breath all the time. But I can’t afford to do anything about it right now.”
“Well, I still think you should call her and set up an appointment.” Her mother insisted. “I’ll pay for it if that will help.”
“No … I don’t want to take your money.” Gina didn’t want to get into that argument again. Her mother had put some savings away, but Gina didn’t like taking money from her mom.
“But how are you Mom?” she changed the subject. “You seem troubled.”
Her mother paused and looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. She gathered her breath and spoke softly, almost in a whisper.
“I don’t like living alone,” she said hesitatingly. “I miss Harley, and I don’t like being in a dark and empty house at night. Maybe I should move to a nursing home or something.”
“Is that what you want to do?” They had been down this road before, and Gina knew where it was heading. “I thought you wanted to stay in your house.”
“I do, but I hate living alone. I guess more than anything I’m afraid.”
Gina looked closely and could see fear in her mother’s eyes. She had seen this look just once before – when her father died.
“I don’t know any other way to put it,” her mother continued. “I’m scared of losing my memory and my independence. It weighs on me every day and it affects my decisions, my friendships, and my confidence.” She looked down and there were tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
Gina hated to see her like this; sad and lonely.
“But Mom, “ Gina tried to reassure her. “Your memory isn’t bad. It’s not any worse than anyone else your age. Have you noticed any change lately?”
Her mother hesitated, and her chin quivered. This was troubling her. When she continued, her voice was soft and pleading.
“Well, it isn’t a sudden change or something I woke up with one day; it’s been coming on for a while. There have been signs … warnings … for a couple of years. At first they were small things, like turning the wrong way when I leave a building, or not being able to remember a name or address. But it’s happening more often and it’s not as easy to get over it and go on.”
“Can you give me an example,” Gina asked.
“Well … it’s a little embarrassing, and I don’t really know how to tell you,” she hesitated. “OK, well … for example, this morning when I woke up I couldn’t remember Marjorie’s name.”
“Do you mean Marjorie from next door?”
“Yes,” her mother said.
“But Mom, you’ve known her for decades. You’re best friends. We grew up playing with her kids.”
“I know. That’s why it was so strange. At first I couldn’t remember either of her names, and then, after I thought about it for a while, I came up with her last name, but I couldn’t remember her first name. Imagine that … my best friend and my next-door neighbor for 50 years -- and I couldn’t remember her name! I started to get scared and thought there was something really wrong. Then I calmed down, had a cup of coffee, and all of a sudden it came to me. Marjorie! Her name is Marjorie!”
“How do you feel now?”
“I feel relieved, but scared. Will this keep happening? Will it get worse?”
“What do you feel when it happens?” Gina probed.
“Well, at this point it’s just a blank. I have the idea to call her, and I look in my memory for her name, and there’s nothing there. Not a thing. So I think about something else, and a few seconds later I try again to think of her name. It frustrates me, and sometimes it scares me that I can’t think of it. It’s not a ‘foggy’ feeling. I’ve had friends that have gotten Alzheimer’s and they have told me that’s how they feel – that a kind of fog settles over their brain. It’s not like that … at least not yet. Instead, it’s more like a missed connection. I just can’t make the connection in my mind to tell me the name. It’s like when I’m doing the laundry and I drop it half way through. Or when I go into a room for something and can’t remember what. Or, when I don’t know which way to turn when I’m walking to the store. It’s like I didn’t think hard enough about it. But that’s what troubles me – I didn’t used to have to think about it – it just happened. It makes me angry and scares me. Now, it’s reached the point that I feel like I have to write down the things I want to do, or I won’t remember to do them. And lately I have been leaving projects half-done, and later I notice that I forgot to finish them. That makes me mad, too. I seem to do better when there’s fewer changes to my daily routine, so now I try to do the same things at the same time every day.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Gina tried to reassure her mom. “You can still lead a normal life.”
“But I used to be spontaneous, and I liked to do things on impulse.”
“Well,” Gina comforted her mom, “You can still do all of the things you need to do.”
“Sure,” her mother said, “But I used to have hopes, and dreams, and things I looked forward to.”
This was the most Gina had heard her mother say in a long time. Normally, she was a woman of few words.
“Each night as I was drifting off to sleep,” her mom continued, “I used to let my mind wander into that happy place where anything is possible, and I would think about my dreams … about what I wanted to do. Like planning a trip, or going to a favorite restaurant, or a special project I wanted to do in the garden. Or, even something simple like going out with Marjorie for lunch. Those were my happy“ thoughts.”
“But not anymore,” her voice trailed off. “Now it’s all I can do to put my worries aside long enough to get to sleep, and the next morning when I wake up I struggle to put my fear aside long enough to get through the day.”
Gina was quiet for a while. There was a look of sadness on her mother’s face. She needed to say something.
“Mom,” she started slowly and gently, “You are the best gardener I’ve ever known. You can make anything grow, and all the neighbors say your garden is the most beautiful in town. And you are always so happy while you are gardening.”
“So let’s think about your hopes and dreams in terms of gardening. Let’s pretend that you are going to plant a garden of dreams.”
“In your garden of dreams, there needs to be a rich base of soil that can nurture your dreams and encourage them to grow. So, let’s say that your home and your life are your soil. They’re rich and fertile, and they will encourage strong, healthy plants.”
“Then, let’s say that your family and friends are your seeds. So you plant your seeds in your rich soil, and you feed and water them with your time and energy. You know those are good seeds, and you love them, and you can be sure that if you take good care of them and nurture them, they will grow.”
“Pretty soon, tiny stalks of dreams will begin to show, and then, as you keep taking care of them they will get larger. Eventually, they will turn into stronger plants, and they will sprout and form blossoms. Are you with me so far?”
“Yes. I like the example.”
“OK, good.” Gina rushed on. “It’s important for you to work on your garden of dreams every day. That means seeing people every day who are positive, and figuring out how you can help people who need help. You don’t need to do extra-special things for them, but you could go visit them, or call them, or write to them, or even say something nice about them. Every time you think about or do something for them you will help them – they will feel better, and you will feel good about yourself. And, when you see how that makes you feel, you will want to do more.”
“Are you still with me?” Gina asked.
“So far. This feels good.”
“So, if that starts to work, then each night before you go to sleep you can think about one of your ‘plants’ … one of your friends. As you lie there in bed, think about who you could help tomorrow … who you could call … or who you could go see … or which of your friends you could take a flower to. And you can think about what other seeds you can plant in your garden of dreams.”
“It would take my mind off my troubles,” her mother agreed.
“There will still be dreams,” Gina assured her. Dreams to look forward to; dreams to work on. But they will be smaller dreams.”
Gina looked at her mother. Her eyes were softening and her mouth wasn’t turned down as much. This was more like the face she was used to.
“Does that make sense?” she asked.
Her mom was quiet for a minute, and she started to say something a couple of times, but caught herself. Then finally, very quietly, but firmly, she answered.
“And here’s another idea, Mom. As I said, I am worried about Jason and the effect the negative news is having on him. What if I asked Jason to come see you after school a couple of times each week -- to help you with your garden? I think he would enjoy spending time with you and helping you. You could use his help, and you could tell him that helping people is better than being mean to people. He could use time with you, to be around your positive thoughts and ideas. While you are working with him you could talk to him about your dreams, and about being a positive force in the world.”
“Does that appeal to you?”
“Yes,” her mother replied. She was smiling now and the look of fear was gone from her eyes. “I would love Jason’s help, and I would love time with him. He could help me with the hard parts of gardening, and I could help him with how to deal with the negative influences around him. It would be good for both of us.
“So, I will agree with your plan,” she added. “But only if you agree to call your cardiologist and set up an appointment … and to let me pay for it. I have more money than you right now, and I want to help you. That’s part of what a mother does.”
Gina’s eyes filled with tears.
“OK, mom, it’s a deal. I’ll call her tomorrow.” She hugged her mother. They hung on to each other for a while, both quietly teary. Gina took a deep breath and whispered in her mom’s ear, “Mom, I love you and I will always love you.” Then, they sat back, dabbed at their tears, and looked at each other. They had a plan.
“Are you good now, Mom? Is this what you needed?”
honey. Thank you. I like it. Smaller
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Dale's story list and biography
The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher