Learning to be thankful during hard times
Published in the Ashland Daily Press
November 27, 2019
Mom’s best friend, my dad, died on December 23rd, 2013. If it weren’t for my brother, Lou, who lived at home and took care of the household and rental business, that time of her life would have been unbearable. It soon became the Mom & Lou team. My two other brothers, two sisters and I were beyond thankful for Lou’s help, although none of us really knew what he did. But then when things in his life called him away from home, I should have known that his absence would affect Mom. But I didn’t. It was a hard lesson to learn in how loss and loneliness can mess with a person’s mind. Add in prescription medications to the equation, four times a day, and things can get downright scary.
The first fix was easy. I called Mom to see if she took her pills. If I didn’t get ahold of her, I’d either run up to her house, or call my brother Mark to do it.
For the second fix, I started to show up for a visit every night after work, whether she wanted me to or not. Mom wasn’t one who wanted company if she was feeling under the weather. “I’ll just stop for a minute,” I’d say.
More times than not, I’d stay at least an hour. Our first project was going through photos that once belonged to my Grandmother and Great-Grandmother and writing the names on the back. I’d ask Mom about her life. I wanted to gather information along the way so I could write as many stories about her life as I could. One evening, when Mom seemed to be feeling especially beaten down by her physical limitations, the loneliness with my father gone, instead of rising above it, she demanded of me, “how many of these stories do you want from me anyways?!”
I felt like it was her way of saying, just let me die. I looked through clouded eyes at the clear bin of photos that we were working on and responded with, “all of them. . .”
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” she said. “I’m 90-years- old, we’re not going to have forever here. You better get your stories.” She took her walker and went back into her bedroom.
In that moment, I felt just how deeply I needed her.
When I got home that night, I felt regret for all those times I had been so busy with my life that I had forgotten about hers. She never needed me, but I never thought twice about dumping my problems on her, needing her wisdom to get me through. I checked in when I could. Sometimes it was once a week; other times, a month might go by. I wished I would have recorded the messages Mom left on my answering machine, “I haven’t heard from you. Hope everything is going okay . . . ”
I started making my nightly visits about Mom. We sorted sheets, cleaned out the closets, and hired a housekeeper to do the things Mom no longer could. We signed up on Ancestry.com and connected with 3rd cousins that Mom didn’t know she had. We sleuthed through the story of my Great-Grandmother Borens. Mom was amazed to learn Grandma Borens was a star-student, popular in her community. We were overjoyed to find ‘letters to the editor’ written by Grandma Borens in the early 1900’s.
I helped Mom update her Facebook page and added relatives to her Gmail. Mom’s circle of friends and family was rejuvenating. Our visits were a mix of capturing the past, along with appreciating life every day.
It was mid- September when Mom told me she was feeling a bit ‘oozy’ when I stopped by to see her on a Thursday night. I got a call from Life Alert early Friday morning. Mom was bending over to pick something up and she fell. She broke both her hip and arm.
My five siblings and I were more than thankful that Mom survived the surgery. When she was transferred from the hospital to the nursing home, one of the first thoughts I had was, what a lonely place to be. That was soon followed with wondering how long it was going to take for Mom’s broken hip and arm to heal so she could get out of there. It didn’t take a medical genius to know that Mom would be spending Thanksgiving in the nursing home. It would be the first time Mom wouldn’t be planning a Thanksgiving dinner in 62 years.
In the nursing home, it felt almost like starting over. In the beginning, Mom was crabby, she didn’t feel good!
“I’ll just stay a minute . . . ,” I’d say when I’d visit her, unannounced. Sometimes I’d stay an hour, sometimes Mom would kick me out long before I was ready to leave.
“Get a nurse, I need something for the pain,” Mom would order.
“Press the button,” I’d suggest. “It’ll be faster.”
“Oh, phooey!” She’d respond. “That button doesn’t work.”
My compromise was, “If they don’t come within five minutes, I’ll go get someone.”
I tried not to look at Mom after saying that because I didn’t want to see the nasty look she was giving me.
I always thanked God when the aid or nurse popped in before the five minutes were up. I wanted Mom to trust that someone was there for her. I needed to know that someone was taking care of her. Although Mom said she knew there were times when the staff was busy with other clients who were more demanding, it didn’t help in subsiding her pain. Mom couldn’t get out of bed, so she couldn’t help herself. It was horrible for her to depend on others. She never had.
Life started to get better once Mom recovered from the surgery. Dealing with the healing process of the broken bones would just take time.
One day when I went to visit, Mom said she heard Bonnie Anderson was in the home. Bonnie’s late husband, Ray, and my dad grew up together in the Highland community outside of Ashland. In fact, one of the first times Mom spoke to my dad, he and Ray rode up on their motorcycles to get gas at my grandparent’s Country Store.
Bonnie was one of those people on Mom’s list that we first tried to connect with. Mom heard Bonnie was in the nursing home from a previous incident; she called numerous times, but never reached her. I went to school with her daughter Meg, so I got ahold of her to see if we had the right phone number.
Although our moms never connected those previous two years, Meg and I continued to keep our communication open. We kept each other abreast of how our moms were doing, then we’d share the news with our moms. We both knew if our parents could find a meaningful way to connect, their friendship would make their lives feel a little less lonely. It was slow going, and this friendship through proxy wasn’t going to be the same.
“I saw Bonnie today,’ Mom said. “She fell and broke her leg. She is really hurting.”
I offered, “Well, maybe you can help each other along?!”
“We’ll see about that,” Mom said, pushing her food tray away. I supposed it was hard to help others when you felt like crap yourself.
As the days went on, Mom started talking more about her visits with Bonnie. They went to therapy in the basement of the home at the same time, they more often than not sat next to each other for meals. During our visits, Mom started asking me to run down to Bonnie’s room and say hello.
When we had Mom’s 91st birthday celebration in her room, she told my sisters to bring Bonnie one of the cupcakes.
Just last week, Mom said to me, “Go check on Bonnie. See if she is doing okay.” She explained that it looked like Bonnie had a rough therapy session earlier that day.
I did as I was told and headed down the hallway.
Bonnie was sitting with her back to me, brushing her hair, so I softly knocked on her door. The smell of soothing soaps and calming lotions was as comforting to see as the fuzzy robe she was wearing. Her smile said it all
“I have this pie here that Meg brought me,” Bonnie said. “I saved half for your mother. Please bring it to her.”
When I returned to Mom’s room, she asked, “Did Bonnie get the ice cream I sent over?”
It’s funny how two unrelated, unfortunate events rekindled a friendship from years past. Both Mom and Bonnie understand loss, aging, and a kind of loneliness that only those who have lived a lifetime can truly understand.
Through this, I am happily starting to feel like Mom’s child all over again, sending me to the neighbors for a cup of sugar.
Thank-you God for caregivers, family and friends. Our family has been blessed, this Thanksgiving Day.