Sunday, March 23, 2014

Not Just Like My Mother

People have often told me I look just like my mother.  The resemblance that pleased me at age 8 caused chagrin during my teenage years, but by the time I had children of my own I had accepted that Mom's high forehead and pointy eyebrows were features I could share without undue angst.

As Mom has moved along on her Alzheimer journey I've found myself once more rebelling against the ways I am like her.  I do not want to become dependent on others as I age or cause my children pain through the irritability and vindictive anger that some dementia patients experience.  I don't want to break my daughter's heart by becoming gut-wrenchingly lost and needy.  And I don't want my son to draw a veil over his emotions toward me as men are inclined to do under the weight of heartache. 

As a result of Mom's dementia I have an unhealthy habit of analyzing my own cognition, and any minor memory glitch causes my heart to clutch with fear.  This must displease the Lord; in prayer this thought came: "You fear weakness, and this keeps you from recognizing your strengths." 

I remembered a study I read years ago about the unique personality traits of identical twins. Scientists were surprised at the differences in brain structure of these genetically identical individuals, differences that often became more pronounced as the twins aged.  I  found a study that showed when one member of a twin pair was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the other developed the disease only about half the time.  I am my mother's daughter, not her twin, and so the correlation between us may be even lower;  just because she has the disease doesn't mean I'll receive a similar diagnosis.  And no matter what the future holds, my path will not be identical to hers. 

There are many reasons to be happy for the ways I'm like my mother. I feel gratitude toward her for my faith in God, which lived first in her.  I admire her years of service to the Lord, and I seek to emulate her ministry to youth and her heart for the elderly.  My mom was and is a person worth admiring, but I am not identical to her either in my strengths or my weaknesses.

I am uniquely me, uniquely loved of the Lord, and I have a life path to follow that is all my own.  Even though the resemblance between us is strong, I am not just like my mother. The only perfect,  one-to-one correlation between Mom and me is that the Lord's presence accompanies each of us on our uniquely individual life journeys. 


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Praying for Strength of Heart

Mom's Easter Tree

I am a former teacher, and no longer have access to classroom bulletin boards. Nowadays my mother's apartment receives the benefit of my pent-up longing to decorate something--anything-- with seasonal cheer.  This is a happy situation for my mother, because one of the blessed aspects of her dementia (in its pleasant manifestation) is her sincere appreciation for anything lovely.  She rhapsodizes over her Easter tree:
Mom:  Linda, don't you think this tree is just absolutely beautiful?
Linda: (modestly) I'm glad you like it.
Mom: (has forgotten Linda decorated the tree, and misinterprets modesty for lack of enthusiasm) Well!  Don't YOU like it?  (accusing look)
Linda: I...I'm the one who put it there.
Mom:  Oh.  Well.  Linda, don't you think this tree is just absolutely beautiful?
And so we go, repetitively but happily.  Providing Mom with pretty things is something I do well.

But here's what I'm not good at: I do not like to sit down and visit with my mother.  Her time on this earth is coming to a close, and the inevitability of losing her oppresses me.  Connecting with her emotionally is painful, because it reminds me of what I've lost and of how difficult that final blow will be.  In her happy phases she stares at my face adoringly, as though I am her sun, her moon, and her stars, and this is uncomfortable.  I feel almost angry when she chatters along very nearly like her old self, expressing concern for me as she used to before the polarity of energy between us reversed so that I am now the one who takes care of her.  She has no memory of her irrational times; the 911 call (because I didn't hear her request for crackers),  her unjust sarcasm, or the vindictiveness she expresses when I insist she bathe or take a walk.  I sometimes feel like a child who has been abused; longing for the parent's love but wary of mood swings, with a layer of anger underneath.

But I am not a child, and I have not been abandoned.  My mother is not abusive, she is ill.  And I am aware of the dangers of burying my heart (see yesterday's post).  Hiding from my mother will make the final parting more difficult, not easier, and repressing emotion can be harmful to one's health.  And so this evening I pulled myself up by the emotional bootstraps, and went into Mom's apartment just to visit.

She looked at me adoringly, as though I were her sun, her moon, her stars. She chattered along very nearly like her old self, expressing concern for me. I didn't recoil, or make an excuse to leave.  I allowed myself to feel loved, and expressed love to Mom in return.

I will sure miss my beloved mother when she is gone, but I don't have to miss her yet.  I pray for strength of heart to face the emotion of still loving and being loved by my mother. 

"My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart, 
And He is my portion forever"
(Psalm 73:26).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Don't Bury Your Heart

I watched Once Upon a Time on Sunday evening, and during the course of the show the evil queen, played by Lana Parilla, decided to bury her heart (in case you haven't seen this series, some of the characters can magically remove their own hearts and those of others).  The queen was in a great deal of emotional pain because she had been separated from her son and would never see him again.  She decided it was easier to feel nothing than to endure the pain of grief.

The symbolism is obvious isn't it?  Most of us prefer to bury hurt rather than face it, but I suspect that emotional detachment may be a contributing factor in the development of dementia. I am thus very interested in learning to cope with emotional pain in the healthiest possible way.

Apathy is one of the early warning signs of Alzheimer's, and in the year before her diagnosis, my mother did indeed become reclusive.  This isn't unusual behavior for dementia patients and may be due mostly to the confusion and embarrassment of memory loss, but another force was at work for my mom.  She had been shattered by the emotional blow of nursing my dad through his battle with lung cancer, and his death signaled the beginning of her downward spiral into dementia.  I'm convinced there was a connection between emotional trauma and Mom's decline. 

We can't avoid life trauma, but I wonder if there is a way to keep from burying our hearts in order to escape from the pain?

As a Christian it is too easy to be trite: keep your eyes on the Lord, don't turn away, and He will see you through.  But when God has allowed heartache and grief, it is instinctive to close our hearts to Him.  We can't accuse the Almighty, but how are we to cope with a God who allows such excruciating sorrow?  It is a difficult truth that our only hope of deliverance from the pain of grief lies in the arms of the One who allowed us that grief.

In the face of my own tendency to withdraw from painful emotional events, it may seem odd that my best comfort comes through a quote from Mom, "I used to try and let go of Him, but He never let go of me."  It is a great comfort for me to observe the Lord's faithfulness to my mother.  He has provided for her compassionately, faithfully, and abundantly through her long journey through Alzheimer's, and though I hope and pray it is not necessary, I am confident He would do the same for me. 

I believe it is worth a fair amount of effort to face grief head-on and resist the desire to withdraw into detachment.  However, it is a blessed relief to understand that although the world and it's sorrows may cause me to let go of the Lord, there is nothing that can break His hold on me.

"...if we are faithless,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot disown himself"
(2 Timothy 2:13).

"What can come between us and the love of God’s Anointed? 
Can troubles, hardships, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger, or even death?  
The answer is, absolutely nothing" (Romans 8:35). 


Sunday, March 2, 2014


Negative emotions are a job hazard of caregiving, but when we bring those emotions to the Lord He knows just how to provide what we need, be it correction, encouragement, or a call to repentance. The most important strategy to remember in dealing with resentment is this:  always bring it to the Lord!  Otherwise it will fester into self-condemnation, anger, and eventually, rebellion.

I record my prayers in the form of conversations between the Lord and me, and in my ongoing commitment to avoid portraying myself as a never-frustrated, always-perfect-and-Godly caregiver (!), I've chosen to share the interchange below:
Linda (tattling): Mom chose to stay in bed after I brought her coffee and told her it was time to get up, and just now, an hour later, she called to ask me to warm her coffee. I told her I'd get there when I could, but I feel angry. 

Lord: She has Alzheimer’s.  The message she receives from an angry tone of voice is that you don’t care about her. 

Linda: (mad because the Lord doesn't say "There, there you poor thing") She treats me like a waitress!  It isn't that she can't get out of her chair or doesn't know how,  it's that she is too lazy to go to the microwave and heat the coffee herself!  She treats me like paid staff rather than a beloved daughter.  I hate that and I am angry over what she has become.  How am I supposed to bear this?
(Pauses, recognizes anger has caused overstatement of what's true, tries again...)

It is just incredibly frustrating.  She is rebellious about getting out of bed when I tell her it is time.  So she lies there.  Then she forgets that she has been rebellious.  After I've coaxed and called several times she finally comes out and her coffee is cold.  So she calls me to heat it. 

She closes her mind to any kind of logic path.  It isn’t that she’s unable to follow me cognitively, its that the instant she receives a whiff of the fact that she’s being scolded she goes on the defensive with those infuriating, sarcastic, pre-packaged replies: 

“Oh, I must be a really terrible person”
“Well you have to do whatever is best for you”

It is infuriating.  I hate being manipulated by her sin, and understanding what's happened to her makes me hate it even more because I see myself in her.  I am terrified of becoming like her in her helplessness and especially in her way of inviting rejection as she does when she's sarcastic and rude. 

Lord:  And yet you love her. 

Linda:  I love her, but she can drink cold coffee.  (Pauses...sees a mind picture of Christ bringing coffee to Mom). 

(Sighs resignedly...) You would take her a hot cup of coffee. 

Lord:  I would. 

Linda:  You would bend to her level and laugh love and camaraderie into her eyes and make her feel beloved. 

Lord:  Yes. 

Linda:  BLAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Lord:  Don’t go in guilt, or because you feel manipulated.  Let Me love her through you, and you will be blessed as well. 
 With that picture of the Lord loving Mom with His kindness fresh in my mind, I took hot coffee to my mother.  She had dozed off in her chair with her cold coffee mug tilted at a precarious angle in her lap, and so I visited with her while she sipped the new, hot beverage in order to keep her awake and safe from a spill.  She said, "You are so good to me, I am so blessed."

Well...not exactly.  The Lord is the One who is good, and He blesses my mother through me and sometimes despite me.

God doesn't ask perfection of us as caregivers, only humility to continue to bring our failings and frustrations to Him.

Prayer:  Lord grant me humility to respond as You would respond to my mother.  And Lord, I thank You for her, because in so many ways her presence here blesses me still.  I'm truly grateful for this unexpectedly long goodbye; grateful for this extension of time to have my mother.  Thank You, Lord, for my mom.