32: One Moment at a Time

32: One Moment at a Time

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

One Moment at a Time

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pops, my stepdad, once flew stunt planes upside down, in dizzying directions, a hobby as confusing to others as his life must seem to him now that he has dementia.

“Where could your mother be this late?” he says, looking at me and frowning.

He scratches his chin stubble and shuffles in his slippers to the kitchen to prepare his dinner. He doesn’t remember that Mom was in the intensive care unit and I had been with her for three days. He doesn’t remember visiting her. He isn’t too keen on my hanging out at their house each evening, either.

“You hungry? I’ll fix you some chicken and potatoes, those cheesy ones you like,” I offer.

“No thank you; I don’t eat cheesy potatoes. I’ll fix my own food.”

He spreads peanut butter on crackers, and then chomps a handful of M&Ms. He sinks down on the sofa but can’t get back up five minutes later. So I help him, the once strapping Navy man who wants to go to bed. He sits on the edge of his bed and waits for me to leave. Fifteen minutes later I see he’s asleep on top of the covers, fully clothed. I return to the hospital to be with Mom.

In the morning I drive bleary-eyed to Pops’ house to make breakfast. He is still asleep. I have to figure out what to do. I gaze at the framed family photographs and Mom’s collection of ceramic angels. I stare at the thermostat my parents adjusted frequently, regardless of the season. I cry quietly and curl up on the sofa in the exact spot Mom had slept in. I lay my head on her pillow and wait for Pops to wake up so I can tell him that his wife of fifty years has passed away.

After gently breaking the news, I ask, “Does your heart ache?”

“No. I’m thankful for all the time we had,” he says in a moment of clarity. “My heart doesn’t hurt. My ankle hurts.”

I raise his pant leg and see a massive infection he developed from scratching a minor wound. The visiting nurse arrives, and tells me Pops can’t be left alone. I agree to stay, never mind the funeral arrangements.

Pops is exhausted from answering the nurse’s six-page questionnaire, and after she dresses his wound he goes back to bed.

When he wakes up he asks, “Where could your mother be? Why isn’t she coming home?”

I know he’s thinking, “And why are you still here?”

I can’t cope alone another minute. When Pops starts snoring, I call my stepbrother who lives out of town and tell him I’ll make the funeral arrangements for my mom. He’ll make the arrangements for Pops’ care.

My heart aches as I pack Pops’ meager belongings: Bible, magnifying glass, favorite deck of cards for solitaire, and personal-care items. I fold his pants and remove his favorite chambray shirts from hangers. He watches, confused and irritated as I stuff his clean clothes into the wicker laundry basket.

“I’ll carry that dirty laundry down the hall and do my own clothes,” he says in a huff.

I stall him until my stepbrother arrives. His son coaxes him.

“Dad, the doctor says you can’t stay by yourself because of your leg. There’s a facility a block away from my house. You need to be there for a while. And I’ll come see you every day.”

Pops’ face brightens; then he looks confused. I turn my head, cringing with heartbreak and guilt. Resigned, he nods. “Okay, I’ll go for a little while.”

Then he looks at me, “Where’s your mother?”

I swallow the lump in my throat and tell him again. He nods. Stoic, and satisfied for the moment, he follows us into the hall and locks the apartment door.

We dash through the rain to the car. I carry his things in a cardboard box, and my stepbrother carries Pops’ clothes in the laundry basket. I lean in, hug him goodbye, and tell him I have a surprise for him. And I drop a forty-eight snack-pack box of M&Ms on his lap. He smiles broadly.

“I’ll see you soon,” I promise. Rain washes the tears from my face. I wave as he and my stepbrother drive off in a thunderstorm with lightning streaking the sky. I do my best to take a deep breath, but can’t seem to pull in enough air.

A few days after Mom’s funeral, my stepbrother calls. “You won’t believe this, but Dad has settled in. He eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the facility. He’s even talking to the nurses and his tablemates. He flipped out his pilot’s license at dinner and told them he’s still a good-looking Navy man.”

I laugh aloud. As difficult as the decision had been, Pops requires more long-term care than either of us can provide.

While I dismantle my parents’ household, Pops and his son reconnect and spend time talking about old times. With better nutrition, hydration, and mental stimulation Pops stays awake longer. He becomes more sociable. I send him letters, cards, and photographs of him with Mom.

The way my stepbrother and I handle decisions about our parents’ final days is probably the same way they handled our earliest days: overwhelmed, uncertain, and guilt-ridden.

I’m sure when my brother and I were babies, crying inconsolably, our parents’ tears mingled with ours. As they cuddled us and sang lullabies, they must have felt uncertainty, too. When they looked into our faces, imagining our futures, they must have wondered how their actions would affect us.

The best any of us can do with loved ones who have dementia is to comfort and nurture them through all the stages. Lullabies aren’t just for babies. We must sing. We must soothe. And we must take each day one moment at a time.

~Linda O’Connell

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