Memory Lane

Memory Lane

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Memory Lane

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.

~From the television show The Wonder Years

I was thrilled last year when Chicken Soup for the Soul chose the story I wrote about my parents to be part of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers; little did I know the real blessing would be in reading the book itself.

The piece I wrote focused on my parents’ struggle to adjust to my mother’s paraplegia and the commitment my father showed in taking care of his disabled wife. Around the time the book came out, my elderly mother started going downhill and within two months was placed in hospice care. My father took her home from the nursing facility where she had ended up, and hospice workers came in daily to help him care for her.

Just the word “hospice” sent my spirits plummeting. Seeing my mother, who had once been so involved in life, now noticeably withdrawn, often confused, no longer able to feed herself, and seemingly unaware of her surroundings produced a tightening in my chest that made it hard to breathe. And when the hospice nurse told us she was showing signs of dementia, it nearly broke my heart.

Reading the other stories in this book was like a lifeline. When I felt sorry for myself over my family’s situation, I only had to read about families who had it so much worse to be reminded that our burden was a relatively light one. When I became saddened that the “take charge” mother I knew had disappeared, I read advice that helped me enjoy getting to know this gentler, more docile version of my mom. Other stories encouraged me to reframe the way I looked at her situation and to adjust my own behavior, while some provided helpful hints that I filed away for future use. I had thought, after twenty-five years of living with my mother’s health issues, that I had learned how to deal with everything; but there were stages of my mother’s life we had yet to pass through and the insights shared in this book helped prepare me for them.

So much wisdom was contained in those 101 stories that it’s hard to pick one to highlight. But if I had to, I would say it was Janey Konigsberg’s “Don’t Take it Personally.” Her advice to live in the past with the elderly patient and not try to keep them interested in the present restored my connection to my mom.

During my weekend visits with my mother, I initially tried to keep her involved in my life — telling her all about my week and asking her about hers. I thought this would entertain her and broaden her world beyond the bedroom to which she was now confined. I brought paintings I had made and showed her photographs of me with my friends. When Chicken Soup for the Soul published another of my stories, I showed her the book and read the story to her.

She smiled politely, but didn’t seem very interested. There was no sign of the pride and enthusiasm she used to show for my activities and accomplishments. I was disappointed — not because I craved validation from her, but because I repeatedly failed to interest her in something that would bring her out of the shell into which she had retreated. In short, I couldn’t reach her.

After reading Janey’s story I resolved to try living in the past when I was with Mom. The weekend before Christmas I pulled up a chair to her hospital bed and brought her a big stack of Christmas cards my parents had received. One by one I read them to her. They represented her entire life: relatives; old friends; my parents’ neighbors from when they lived in New York; and new friends from their retirement community in Maryland. I’d look at the return address, and if the name was unfamiliar to me I’d ask her, for example, “Who do you know named Elizabeth Parker that lives in Florida?” I was surprised when she answered, “Oh, that’s Betty from the beauty parlor who used to do my hair. She moved to Florida when she retired.” As we worked through the stack I became amazed at how much detail she remembered from years gone by.

That day Mom stayed awake the whole time I was there and was a lot more communicative than I’d seen her in the last six months. Even when she didn’t say anything, her frequent smiles and the way her eyes lit up let me know that she was enjoying herself. By the end of my visit I was hoarse from reading aloud all the notes people had written. Their unique voices came through in the handwritten comments or newsletters they enclosed, and it was as if she had had a mini reunion with each of them. We both had fun reminiscing about her friendships with these people, and by prompting her with questions I learned some details about her life that I hadn’t known before.

Two days later, I came back to spend Christmas Day with her. A few more cards had arrived and I read them to her. We had a good laugh over one from an Italian-American friend who signed her card, “Buon natale e api nuier.” Buon Natale is Merry Christmas in Italian, but “api nuier” is a phonetic rendering of “Happy New Year” — with an Italian accent! My mother, who had always been a meticulous speller, found this quite amusing and seeing her sense of humor return, even for a short while, further loosened the bands that had been squeezing my heart.

At a loss for what to do once we finished with the cards, I started singing Christmas carols. Mom used to love to sing, but now she just listened. I made sure not to sing any of the newer songs — only the traditional ones. Sensitive to tiring her out or annoying her with my less-than-perfect voice, I’d stop every few songs and asked if she wanted me to continue. She always nodded her head yes. When I left at the end of the day she smiled and said, “Those were all the old songs we used to sing. Thanks for the entertainment, Sue.” The sincerity in her voice conveyed her appreciation, and as I looked into her eyes I caught a glimpse of the mother I remembered.

I realize that this approach is not a panacea. Just last weekend we were having a cheery chat when my father left to do some grocery shopping. When I told her “Daddy went to the store,” she thought about that and asked, “What’s Daddy’s last name?” But her confusion didn’t sadden me the way it might have before. Even though she may have bad days or moments ahead, for the time being she still knows who I am and we are able to enjoy each other’s company.

I don’t know if my parents’ caregiving story will help anyone else, but I’m very grateful to my fellow contributors who shared their wisdom and experiences in that book. I had no idea I’d be putting them to use so soon. Thanks to Janey’s story, I found the mother I thought I’d lost on a stroll down memory lane.

~Susan Yanguas

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