Torn

I’m sitting in the Birmingham International Airport waiting for my flight to Chicago. The past ten days have offered a break from caregiving in Illinois, tending to my dad’s needs since he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and handling the logistics of Mom’s stay at the nursing home. Bruce and the girls and I had a great time in B’ham, going to our favorite restaurants, traveling to the river with Helena and my friend Suzanne (whose brother kindly lets us stay at his river house when it’s not otherwise occupied), and cuddling on the couch.

This time was different than my last visit home roughly four weeks ago. I’m no longer sure that I’m making the right choice, being away from my husband and kids for such long periods of time. On the surface, everything seems nicely orchestrated. I’ve taken Family Medical Leave from my job, and I’ll be back to my “real life” come January when the Spring semester gets underway. But that time is looking (and feeling) further and further away. I miss Bruce, Celia and Helena desperately, and seeing them for a week to ten days once a month no longer seems enough.

It’s funny how we’re led to believe that we can make the right choices in life, one at a time. Going with your heart–or gut–doesn’t really work when you’re feeling two conflicting ways at once. I am terribly torn. Dad is very, very sick and his prognosis is uncertain. I’ve become his go-to person for vetting medical advice, ensuring that he isn’t retaining too much fluid or exhibiting signs of trouble that might necessitate a trip to the emergency room.

Simply put, there is no one else who can do what I’m doing. My brother, Joe, is living in a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, where he is slated to stay until a space opens up at yet another rehab facility in the state. I know this because five voicemail messages awaited me when I went into my office this past week.

“Hi Sis,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that I’m in Colorado to make a fresh start.”

Maybe that’s Joe’s intention at the moment, but I’ve seen his plans fall through again and again since trying drugs for the first time at age 13. I wanted to shout into the phone: “Good luck! Thanks to you, I’m the sole caregiver for Mom and Dad! I don’t give a damn about your ‘fresh start’!”

I know this time will pass. I will, God-willing, have many years to spend with my husband and daughters–to travel, take long walks, share our dreams. But right now, that future seems much too far away. At least 600 miles–the distance that separates Birmingham from my hometown.

 

 

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What’s in a name?

Many societies privilege particular ways of referring to individuals and share unspoken laws about which terms are proper for referring to men, women, and children as well as specific members of one’s own family. I came across an article today that addresses how women’s names are NOT spoken in Afghanistan, a practice  stemming from a tribal tradition that doing so exposes a wife or mother to visibility by other men. The same underlying logic influences conventions for dress. A body exposed, like a name revealed, dishonors a woman–but perhaps more importantly, the man/men to whom she belongs.

I’m of two minds on the perspective presented in Mashal’s article. On one hand, I would be appalled to be called “My Goat” or “The Household” rather than by my given name, “Cynthia.” I like to think that people who speak or see my name recognize the things I have accomplished and the person I have striven to become through my beliefs and actions.

On the other hand, I acknowledge the ethical barriers to intervening in the practices of another culture, of assuming that our Western perspective and attitudes are the best and should be the lens through which we judge others.  For example, I have taught many women over the years who cover their heads with a hijab and just about every inch of their bodies, few of whom I would describe as oppressed or diminished by the practice.

Corpse Hotels

I admit to leaning towards the morose in my interests. Since traveling to the Netherlands and learning about a rising trend towards sustainable funerals there (and elsewhere around the globe, I discovered), I have become increasingly intrigued with modern accommodations for the deceased–and the living who remain behind. In today’s NYT, I came across a story about an innovative practice in Japan–in Tokyo, specifically–for addressing the needs of small families who have lost a loved one: corpse hotels.

Since crematories are too few to accommodate the needs of an aging Japanese population and traditional funeral homes often offer too expensive and elaborate services for a small family facing the death of a loved one, some unique hotels have sprouted up to fill the gap. According to the article (and accompanying video clip), Japanese tradition dictates a night-long wake in the deceased’s family home followed by cremation in a nearby facility on the following day. But with space in Tokyo at a premium, forcing families into smaller high rise condos and apartments less welcoming of corpses, and overbooked crematories requiring waits of a week or more in some instances, an alternative intermediate resting place for the deceased and family members has become necessary.

These spaces provide “rest” of two kinds–for the deceased awaiting cremation and for family members seeking a comfortable environment for paying last respects and remaining with the departed until final rites can be performed.

While this business venture is certainly market-driven and provides an opportunity for profit among those behind corpse hotels, I think that the services provided are likely appreciated by the families who utilize them.

Father’s Day(s)

Today is Father’s Day, and my dad is back in the hospital. I brought him to the ER yesterday morning when his ankles began swelling beyond recognition and his mind became more confused. At the moment, he’s sitting in a hospital bed on the sixth floor, Cardiology, undergoing an infusion that will be repeated every 4-5 days for as long as there’s some benefit, however minute.

I’m crazy about Dad, always have been. He’s got grit. As I’ve written before, Dad knows what he believes in and stands by it. He is a good man, a hardworking farmer, a devout Catholic. He has always acted on his convictions and refused to “go along with the crowd” if their mindset doesn’t gel with those convictions. I have nothing but respect for Dad.

During the past eight weeks, Dad has faced a new challenge: Congestive Heart Failure. His time on earth, and in my life, is coming to a close. I have spent every day with Dad these 55 days, sharing meals, watching Westerns on television, enjoying long chats about his past and the future without him here to counsel me on caring for Mom and managing the farm.

On this Father’s Day, I am reminded that I am extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to call this man my dad. I wish we had many, many more Father’s Days ahead of us.

 

Memories of a different life

A report issued in the European press in March finally made its way to my parents’ local newspaper:  A retirement home called Alexa Seniors’ Residence in Dresden, East Germany is assisting elderly Alzheimer’s patients by taking them back to another time.

By recreating the Communist era, filling the residence with decor from before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, offering residents clothing from the time, and even providing a shop filled with the kinds of products that residents would have once seen for sale in their local neighborhoods, patients with dementia return to a familiar scene. And to a moment when they were confident in what they knew and what they could do.

One of the early news stories–with lots of photos of the retro environment created at Alexa–can be found here:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4276120/Home-helps-Alzheimer-s-patients-recreating-East-Germany.html

While it’s hard to imagine how returning to an era of control could be a good thing, sometimes the kind of memories are less important than simply the possibility of remembering. As I’ve observed my mom’s painful decline into dementia, I’ve noticed that many of the moments she recalls most vividly are also the most painful–the events and people from her past with which she has experienced the least amount of closure.

 

Routines

This morning, Bob, one of the farmers who began working our family’s land once Dad retired, agreed to come over to install some safety features in the bathroom. Dad is home from the hospital, at least for now, but the house that my grandparents built clearly needed some updates to accommodate the situation. Although we don’t know for sure how much Dad’s life will change given his current diagnosis, Dad told me that he wants to stay at home if he can and feel as secure as possible going about his everyday routine.

As soon as Dad found out that Bob was headed our way, along with Bob’s brother-in-law/partner and the rep for crop insurance that they all work with, Dad began talking about needing help getting out of his pajamas and into his bib overalls and seed corn hat. The guys were coming to visit, and Dad wanted to look the part of, well, Jerry–a fourth-generation farmer whose standard attire has been the same for just about all of his 81 years.

As we sat waiting on Bob and the others, Dad and I started talking about a future with Congestive Heart Failure–the new “bland” sodium-reduced diet; morning rituals of recording and reporting vitals; an onslaught of visits from home health, home helpers, and friends and neighbors prepared to drive Dad to and from a host of appointments.

“I’m not sure how long I’ll last if I can’t get outside, walk out to the field, see the crops coming up,” he told me.

I reminded Dad that the purpose of cardiac physical therapy, which he’ll begin on Friday, is to help him restore as much strength as possible to his heart muscles and lungs. Over time, the goal is to move him closer to doing the very things that will make his life more like it’s always been.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same, though,” he responded.

Dad’s eyes began to water as he told me that he isn’t confident that he can make so many changes at his age–and without my mom by his side.

I get it. I do. Dad’s being encouraged to accept a new normal that’s anything but. Especially for an Illinois farmer.

 

 

 

 

Sooner rather than later

During the past few years, my parents and I have been talking more openly about the future of the farm on which I was raised.

“One of these days,” my dad has often said, “you’ll be in the driver’s seat when it comes to running things.”

Bit by bit, Dad has taught me what he knows. A fourth-generation farmer, Dad has a wealth of knowledge to share–about planting, harvesting, marketing, buying and selling land. Perhaps the greatest thing my parents have taught me, though, is that the land on which they’ve made a living is something to be cherished. When my ancestors immigrated from Ireland, they discovered rich soil in Central Illinois and chose to settle here–a decision that has continued to shape how my parents and many others in my extended family have lived their lives.  Certain fields are reminders of the sacrifices that Mom and Dad made at different points in their marriage, plans and dreams they had for building their operation and creating a more secure future for our family.

As Dad and Mom have shared their wisdom and memories, I have drunk in their stories and know-how. And I have thought about how my life will change when, one day, I am involved directly in the business of farming. As well as how much my life will represent another chapter in the history of our family.

What I hadn’t considered, though, was how soon this change might occur. Four weeks ago, Dad showed up at the local ER with Congestive Heart Failure. On the same day, Mom was transferred to the nursing home with a host of physical problems and increasing dementia. Neither Mom nor Dad seems to be bouncing back, and I am scared that my responsibilities on the farm might come “sooner” rather than “later.”

I pray that we’ll all have more time together. And that when the moment arrives for me to step up and take charge, I will do my parents–and all those who came before–proud.