When the Unthinkable Becomes Inevitable: The Awful Dawn of Dementia
By Heidi Hess Saxton
Up to this point in my life, most of my blogging has been for parents of adopted, foster, or special needs children. Back in 2002, when my husband and I first became foster parents (and later adoptive parents), we really had no idea what we were in for. Which was probably a good thing, because I’m not sure we would have had the courage to move forward with it, had we known.
Now, as I’m entering the sixth month of caring for my mother, a dementia patient, I’m realizing that this is a lot like that. Lots of dirty laundry and temper tantrums, interspersed with moments of sweetness and delight. The tumultuous relationship we had during my teen years is gone. These past six months have been the sweetest, yet in many ways also the hardest – for both of us. But even the hard times are not without their rewards. For instance, when my daughter is being her snarky teenage self, she will do for her “Mammy” what she would never do in a million years for “Mean Old Mom.”
Best of all, I don’t have to make those bi-monthly trips to Georgia to visit her in that godforsaken place (Grace House, my Aunt Fanny), where the residents sat slumped in the half-light like so much castaway furniture. She spent most of her time on her bed, exhausted from writing notebooks full of gibberish, trying to work out why she had been deprived of her freedom, her marriage, and most of her life. My sisters and I would take her out as often as we could from our respective homes in Indiana, Washington State, and New Hampshire (plus the youngest who lived nearby but was trying to balance the demands of caring for her family, a full-time job, and both my parents), but it grew harder and harder to bring her back to the facility. More than once I begged God to take her in her sleep. I was sure I knew where she was going, and it was an infinitely better place than this.
Finally, one day when I realized that there really wasn’t any reason for her to stay where she was, I broached the subject with my father, who readily agreed that Mom would be happier with me. Just before Thanksgiving, we decided – so she could go back by the end of Christmas if it didn’t work out.
But in my heart, I knew there was no going back. “How’d you like to come home with me, Mom?” Her dull expression brightened for just a moment. “They won’t let you take me,” she said. “The judge won’t let me go.”
Somewhere in her clouded mind sat a cantankerous old geezer who called the shots. “It’s okay, Mom. Dad said I could take you – and the Judge has no jurisdiction in Indiana.” And so, her friends all gathered to celebrate her 77th birthday on that last day before we left. “I’m so happy for your mom,” each of them said to me. “She’s going to be so much better off with you.” They gave her warm track suits to insulate her from the Indiana winters, and posted pictures and letters regularly both in the mail and on the private Facebook page where I keep everyone informed of her comings and goings.
Then we got on a plane and … she was free. It wasn’t like her old life, with the man she’d loved for more than fifty years. Instead of a spacious, well-kept home she had a room in the basement with a little half-bath near my office, and she struggled to climb a flight of stairs a couple of times each day.
But how she smiled. In photograph after photograph, her eyes alight as she once more made cookies, beat us at Scrabble, sang at birthday parties, and sported a pretty Easter dress. She had been given a second chance at life. And I was going to make the most of it, for as long as I could.
There’s still so much to learn, so much I’m still figuring out. But I decided I want to keep track of the steps along the journey, in case there was someone else out there who, like me, just needed someone who could say, convincingly, “Me, Too.” So, if that’s you, welcome. Pour yourself a cup of… well, whatever strikes your fancy. I won’t judge. And let’s take the time to encourage each other, in good days and bad. Because when the unthinkable becomes the inevitable, the steadying hand of friendship can make all the difference in the world.
Heidi Hess Saxton and her mom, Sandy, live with Heidi’s husband Craig, their teenage children, and two energetic dogs in northern Indiana. In her spare time, Heidi is a writer and editor, and blogs as often as she can at “Life on the Road Less Traveled” (for adult caregivers), “Extraordinary Moms Network” (for parents of adopted and special needs children), and “Ask the Catholic Editor” (for non-fiction writers). Her latest book is Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Franciscan Media).
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