The Forgotten Ones

6 04 2015

IMG_1145I have this picture of my mom. She’s wearing a kerchief over her hair, a knife in one hand, an apple in the other. She has the serene smile of someone who has  a deep-seated contentment, a trait she shared with my dad. Mom loved all fruit, but the apple is the one I associate with her the most because of that smile as she sliced it. She was a purist–loving all things in their simplest form. Meat was always cooked with salt and a little Dutch spice, potatoes were ungarnished and served quartered, vegetables had freshly grated nutmeg and a pat of butter on them. Dessert was pudding and stewed or fresh fruit. On special occasions we were allowed home-made ice cream.

In the summer as she gardened Mom would pop a carrot or radish into her mouth. I can still smell the earthy odor of the garden soil as she pulled root vegetables free, shaking each before laying it in the bucket beside her. The red of beets, the orange of carrots, the white of peppery radishes, the brown of potatoes she dug out of the hills, each with its own brilliant green foliage, all colors of summer.

Year round Mom hung wash on the line strung in the back yard, allowing it to flop in the breeze until the smell of fresh premeated each piece. Sheets carried the sweet scent of outdoors, and I remember as a child burying my nose in in them after climbing into bed on washday. I followed her lead  after starting my own family. I gardened, froze and canned the produce, hung out the wash, allowing my children to enjoy that experience of freshness only Mother  Nature can provide.

And then one year it was Dad who planted and tended the garden while Mom sat motionless in her chair gazing out the living room window at nothing. She had ceased to speak or acknowledge us. Dad was the one who froze the strawberries and canned the abundant harvest of beans. Dad cut the juicy stalks of rhubarb, discarded the poisonous leaves, sliced the sour stalk into a cooking pot and covered it with sugar. Dad fried the meat, peeled the potatoes, topped the beans before settling them into boiling water. And Dad decided to use the dryer instead of the wash line.

Mom had slowly walked into the mist of Alzheimer’s Disease. Bit by bit, her spirit ceased to exist as she became a shell of the person we loved. Dad was her sole caregiver (by choice), at first handling things well. Mom was docile, easily steered to the table or her favorite chair, able to take care of her private needs, to feed herself. That lasted only months, soon giving way to Dad having to take her to the bathroom, help her take care of her hygiene. Then the night wanderings began, and the care that had covered daytime hours stretched to 24 hours a day. She lost bladder and bowel control, so he changed her adult diapers,cleaned her, washed sheets, towels, clothing as they were soiled. He carefully fed her at each meal. And he lost weight, this tiny man who hadn’t an ounce to spare. He looked weary. He looked old.

Everyone asked after Mom. How was Anne? She didn’t look sick. Was she in need of anything? She seemed fine in church on Sunday. Did she get around all right? Was she staying healthy? How was the disease progressing? (Dad had fed and dressed her, guided her to the car, put on her seatbelt, taken her out of the car, steered her toward the church building, gotten her through the door and delivered her to a pew before sitting beside her. And then he did it all in reverse after the service).

But here’s what amazes me. No one, not one person, bothered to ask how Dad was doing. All the attention was focused on my mom, and Dad became secondary. He’d lost 20 pounds (a huge amount for a man who weighed 140 at his peak) and his face was drawn, the lines of exhaustion right there for them to see. I was over 2000 miles away, raising a family and holding down a full-time job, unable to help more than a couple of times a year, but I saw what his care-giving was doing to him. Was I the only one? Really?

I begged Dad to get help, hire someone, have Mom admitted to the local nursing home. He refused (I promised ‘in sickness and in health’) until he had no choice. One day Mom couldn’t stand. When Dad tried to get her out of bed she crumpled to the floor, and he couldn’t get her up. Not only did she outweigh him, she had become inert. At last he acquiesced and had her admitted to nursing care. Six weeks later she died. Though he mourned losing her (he said he lost her twice; once to Alzheimer’s and then again through death), gradually, my dad became his old self. The weight came back on, his humor returned, he slept well at night. But it took a while.

I know several caregivers, individuals who dedicate each day to filling the needs of a loved one, ministering to both their physical and their spiritual needs. I see it happening to them just as it did to my father, that gradual wearing down. People show concern for the ill person. Ask questions as to the sick one’s welfare. But what about the caregiver? I try very hard to let those earthly angels know that they are in my prayers along with the one they care for. They are heroes, every one of them. I know it’s lonely work, I know they’re exhausted. Do you know what they tell me when I thank them for their service, these invisible, forgotten  people? They consider it holy work, a sacred gift, a privilege. A privilege. That gives me chills. It is all they have to give their beloved one who is dying, and they give it with joy.

I am in awe. God bless them, every one.

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