76: Losing Gracefully

76: Losing Gracefully

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Losing Gracefully

Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.

~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

How do you spell old age? L-O-S-S. I know. I was there to bear witness.

After my father-in-law’s unexpected death that Independence Day, Velma decided to move to Colorado to join her three sons, to immerse herself in their families. But the cost of love and companionship was high: My mother-in-law traded her rural hometown, her beloved house, and most of her worldly possessions to be with us.

In the process, she chose to leave behind other members of her family—her brother, sister, nieces, and nephews. She waved goodbye to her pastor, her girlfriends, her old classmates, her long-time hairdresser, her Sunday school class. She uttered her final farewells at the headstones of her parents, grandparents, and younger sister.

And her husband.

It was my privilege to spend time in Kansas that winter, helping her dismantle the household she’d established decades earlier when her boys were young, her days full, and her dreams rosy. The idea of old age and ill health in those years was still so distant it hadn’t even seemed possible.

“What do you want to do with these?” I nodded toward the kitchen counter where rows of vases stood at attention, soldiers waiting for orders.

She blew a tired breath. “Box ’em. The hospital auxiliary will fill them with flower arrangements.”

“And those?” I pointed at mountains of craft supplies, rainbows of embroidery floss, and packages of straight pins glinting like mica.

“Well, I was thinking some of the ladies at church might use those up. I’ve already set aside my scraps and quilting books. They go with me.” When she reached for a stack of crocheted doilies on her desk, her hand trembled—a symptom of the disease we suspected but was as yet undiagnosed.

Each closet held surprises. The white Tonka truck my husband treasured in his childhood. A vintage game of Chutes and Ladders, still in its original box. Brittle photographs of ancient relatives. We unearthed a lifetime of memories and a flea market’s worth of goods amassed throughout six decades of marriage.

“Look here.” Velma leafed through her wedding scrapbook. “These gift cards came from Germany, relatives we hadn’t heard from during The War.” Two heads, one copper and one silver, angled over the pages as we identified signatures and sighed over photographs.

She pawed through boxes and sorted file cabinets, handling each old receipt and rereading every yellowed letter. After a thorough romp through recollections, she left them behind—along with almost everything else she owned.

“No room for any of this in my new apartment at Good Samaritan.”

She was right, of course. Space in her new quarters was limited. Even so, I was stunned at how easily she deserted the possessions she’d spent her entire life accumulating and treasuring and storing.

Velma loved her new digs and segued smoothly into assisted living. She contacted old friends from the 25 summers spent at our local campground. She made new friends at the facility, engaged a hairdresser, and purchased yards of fabric to quilt. She attended church services, sang, and sewed baby quilts for her professional caregivers.

But more loss was on the horizon. In a few short months, the doctor diagnosed progressive Parkinson’s disease. It wasn’t long before Velma’s physical needs outgrew the parameters set by the assisted-living facility. As a family, we stepped in to take up the slack. As she steadily declined, we drove her to appointments, escorted her on shopping expeditions, mediated with doctors, oversaw dentures, nursed her through a broken hip, purchased an electric cart, gave her “driving lessons,” sat with her at the hospital, and hosted her graduation to a wheelchair.

One by one, she lost her motor skills. Toward the end, we did for her the things her muscles were no longer capable of. We spoonfed her; we painted her fingernails with her favorite polish—Creamy Carnation—and clipped on her favorite jewelry; we dialed the phone and held it to her ear; and we wiped spittle from the corners of her mouth, straining to catch the words she struggled mightily to speak.

Through it all, she kept up with family near and far. She knew which of the nursing home staff were on vacation, who was expecting a baby, whose teenager was having trouble in school. She read her hometown newspaper and celebrated each victory of the Denver Broncos.

By the time she died, Velma had lost so much—her spouse, her home, and her health. But, ever gracious and accepting of life’s circumstances, she set an example for us all. Without complaint or grieving, she willingly gave UP a lot. Yet she never gave IN.

The real loss, I came to realize, wasn’t hers… it was ours.

~Carol McAdoo Rehme

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