You may have noticed I’ve been noticeably absent from the blog for the month of February. Completely unplanned events and health emergencies of our family took up much of my time. We’ve yet to plan and execute a retirement party for my husband for family and friends and my studio lies languishing from neglect.
But all is not lost. While life has been happening, the publication of the book has been chugging along and Friday, March 9, the printed version of Forgive and Forgotten will be completed. Both paperback and e-book versions are available on Amazon which you can reach here: https://www.amazon.com/Forgive-Forgotten-Memoir-Donna-Kemper/dp/1625860935/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1520345238&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=forgiven+and+forgotten+donna+kemper.
The subject of forgiveness is perfect during the Lenten season. If you are interested in a book signing at your church or small group, contact me at email@example.com.
Saturday was bright and sunny as we went to Mom and Dad’s apartment for the last time. The charity has come and picked up the furniture. Now, we filled up the cart with the last load of bits and pieces, I vacuumed the entire apartment while Mike washed down surfaces. Once I was done, I walked back into their former bedroom and tears softly welled up. They don’t come so suddenly in a rush anymore. Now it’s a gentler flow. We loaded up a cart, gave the poinsettia to one of Mom’s friends, and went downstairs to say goodbye to the friends they made over the past five years. Everyone asks after Dad. I tell them he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. We promise a visit when my sister-in-law comes back into town and then we’re off to empty the car and fill our house halfway to the ceiling with boxes.
We drop off the keys and access cards the next day after church and after dinner go to visit Dad. He’s in good spirits but very confused. He’s still unclear about Mom, although now when we tell him she’s gone he’s not as surprised, nor as upset. He realizes he’s heard that before and now wants to know the details of their will. Then we skip to Mother again and for a few minutes we go around and around. I pull out a photo album I made of the time a few years ago that he, Mike, and I went for a ride on a B-17. This was the type of plane he was a gunnery sergeant for during World War II. This brings back memories. Both of the war and of that day. The memories are a bit scrambled, but pleasant and gets the conversation off things that worry him. But when we’re done, he’s back to being confused and worried. To the point that he asks about Mom’s husband. But when I point out that would be him, he throws back his head and laughs and says he’s glad I reminded him of that.
And so we’ve transitioned to a new phase of the journey.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and the phone is ringing again. Mike is so exhausted he doesn’t hear this time and I don’t hear his sister stirring, either. This is an answer to prayer because I want them to be able to rest. I get up to take the early morning shift.
I’m not quick enough and the answering machine is getting it, but I’m not concerned. It will ring again and as I reach the bottom of the stairs, it starts. I’m thankful he’s forgotten about the cell phones. Mike’s is in the bedroom and it’s jolted him awake several times already.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Uh, well…uh, is this Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s Donna.”
“Can I talk to Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s 5:30 and he’s in bed. He needs to sleep and I’m not waking him up.”
“Oh. Uh. Well, do you have a minute?”
“Yes, Dad,” and I sit on the stairs. It will be a while.
“I’m completely bewildered. I can’t find Anne.”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“No, Mike’s mother. Anne. Your Anne has died.”
“My mother, Anne?”
“No, Dad. Your wife.” His mother’s name was not Anne.
“How did that happen.”
“Her lungs wore out, Dad.”
“Where was I?”
“You were holding her hand.”
“Here in the house?”
“Yes, Dad, the apartment. You were holding her hand, I was reading the psalms to her, and Mike was stroking her hair.”
“Did she suffer?”
“No, Dad. It was peaceful.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“Your memory has been bad for a few years, now.” He will accept this from me. He called Mike a liar last night.
“I can’t remember any of this.”
“Is Mother with you?”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“Was there a funeral?”
“No, Dad. It will be Friday.”
“What day is today?”
“What should I do?”
“Go back to bed, Dad.”
“I found a note here. Did something happen?”
“Mom’s gone, Dad.”
“I have to go get her.”
“You can’t, Dad. She’s died. We’ll have a private viewing today. Your daughter came to town yesterday and spent the day with you and we’re going to go see Mom one last time.”
“At 11 o’clock.”
“Will I go?”
“Yes, Dad. We’ll come get you.”
“Has there been a funeral?”
“Has something happened?”
And on it goes for another five minutes or so. Suddenly he’s done and hangs up.
I go to make a cup of coffee and clean up the kitchen a bit.
The phone rings.
One day last week, I was sitting at my computer checking my email and observing the beautiful autumn sky through the windows. I was enjoying a leisurely morning and contemplating making a cup of coffee or tea when my cell phone started ringing.
After locating it and digging it out of my purse, I answered and my mom-in-law asked if I was on my computer.
“Yes, Mom. Why?”
“Oh, I’ll have to wait until you get off then.”
“Why is that?” I asked, thinking she didn’t want to interrupt me.
“Because you’re on my network and I can’t get on my computer.”
“What?” This conversation was not making sense to me.
“I get a dialog box whenever I start up the computer that says there are too many users on my network, so I’ll wait until you get off.”
“Mom, we aren’t on a network.”
“Yes, we are. You have my computer linked with mine, remember?” No, I didn’t remember because that wasn’t the case. She continued, “I have a little box that keeps asking me for my password.”
Now I was beginning to wonder if she’d been hacked and someone was fishing for information.
“Mom, we aren’t on a network. Our computers aren’t connected in any way. It sounds like your computer has a problem.”
“Can you come fix it?”
I looked at the clock, trying to calculate if I could make it there, look at the computer to diagnose the problem and still make it to the other side of town in time to pick someone up. The leisurely part of the morning was done and since there wasn’t enough time, I squeezed in a stop there before she went to lunch.
While I am the most computer savvy person in my family, I am by no means a tech guru. My prayer as I went up to their apartment was for a temporary spiritual gifting of tech repair. As I looked over the situation, I realized that Mom had been convinced that since her computer is covered under my name at the repair shop, that we were on a network. She had worked out while I was driving around that that wasn’t the case and was apologizing. She is aware that her memory is starting to slip and is fighting it as much as she can; there is an unspoken understanding between us of what is going on. I sat at her computer to assess the situation. Somehow, it was starting up in the administrator window rather than a user window.
Back in the day when I took a slew of classes to learn how to use different softwares, the instructors hammered it into me to never go into the administrator window. Don’t go into it if you don’t know what you’re doing. It is good advice. However I did it anyway. By the grace of God, I was successful in navigating around to get her back up and running, connecting to the internet and able to check her emails.
A small miracle to encourage me to keep going. And then, two hours later, another call.
“My hearing aid has broken into two pieces. Can you come and fix it, or take it to the hearing aid place?”
Here we go again, with more prayer and more miracles of grace. These small miracles encourage me through this journey and I am grateful.
In August, I shared that I was finally coming to grips with the fact that life as I had known it has changed forever. There is no going back, nor picking up where I had left off. While at some level I already knew that, it was time to just face it squarely and plot a new course.
This doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of Mom and Dad. We’re committed to being there for them come what may. However, I had made my schedule so flexible and so available to accommodate whatever might happen, that I’ve failed to care for relationships or myself. I’ve failed to refill my reservoir for far too long.
This has required some thinking and soul searching. One area in need of change seemed to be my job situation. I need to work at least part time to pay my studio rent and the small business I work for had laid me off for eight months. It seemed it was time to look for employment that would work around my caregiving needs and art schedule With those things in mind, I began searching. Of course, as soon as I applied for a position I was called back to my job. Since it has very flexible hours and works around my caregiving needs, I’m staying there. At least for the time being.
Another area that needed to be addressed was being connected with community. To that end, after much prayer I’ve started a twice monthly gathering of artists of faith. People who use art as worship and prayer and are looking for a community that will join together in fellowship, and prayer. Not only inquiring of God, but listening for an answer. It has been far better than any of us had hoped and we all look forward to each meeting knowing that God will show up in prayer and in art. I’ve also started attending a church that is closer to my home which connects me to my own neighborhood.
Another effort to expand community has been to join Bible Study Fellowship, studying the gospel of John. While it’s a good spiritual discipline, I can already see it’s not a good fit. While I will complete the 30 weeks, I doubt I will do it again next year. But that’s the whole point - to try new things and see where it will lead. We're also considering raising a puppy for Paws for a Cause. Expanding our interests and connections.
Mike and I have been trying to be more intentional about spending time together with mixed results. A couple weeks ago we took a vacation day and went to the state capitol to be tourists. It was a fun change of pace, walking around Lansing on a lovely autumn day.
However, the next day Mom went into the ER for breathing issues associated with congestive heart disease. The next few days after that were spent trying to get her and Dad back on an even keel. We were back to our old ways in an instant. Mike was going one way, and I was going another. Cancelled appointments, and meeting with support staff.
Life is a work in progress.
When I stopped everything to care for my mother, I assumed life would pick up where I had left off once she was gone. I don’t know why I thought that, but it did help me get through some of the trying times of that journey.
However, after she died it was difficult to find my footing. For one thing, I needed to to recover from the exhaustion and the weight gain of over thirty pounds from stress eating. For another, I was walking with a cane from an injury I’d had the year before. Physically, I was a wreck.
But most of my inability to move forward was due to emotional fallout, so I decided to be kind to myself and do whatever might be necessary to heal, recover and just breathe for awhile before taking on any big projects.
It was a good plan, but we quickly realized Mike’s parent’s were beginning to need far more support than we could provide from across the state. The process of moving them closer began and my role of caregiver evolved into something new.
At this writing, I’ve been an elder caregiver in one way or another for over a dozen years. Looking toward the future, there will be others who will also need me to be in their life for some sort of caregiving support. I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to be in this role for the rest of my life. That is a sobering thought.
Flipping through an old undated notebook I found something I wrote that expresses my thoughts right now.
“God is always at work…eventually, there will be a crisis of belief. Major life
adjustments are needed.”
Caregiving is not going to end.
Life is never going to be the way it used to be.
Major adjustments ahead.
Last week, I stopped in at my in-law’s apartment. The temperature outside was in the 90s but when I went into the apartment, the air conditioning was turned off. Mom had a sweater on and was bundled up in a blanket. I don’t know how Dad can stand it. As we sat visiting, I was sweltering in my shorts and tank top but she couldn’t get warm. She told me she’s reached the point in life where she will never be warm again.
As we see each other day by day, I don’t really notice these changes. But when I come into a stifling apartment to find Mom freezing, the reality that she is not doing well is unavoidable. It gives me a momentary pause - we won’t have them for ever. It hits me suddenly and I am saddened.
But there are things to do and needs to be met, so I marshal on. Later, I sit in my studio in a fog, staring out the window. The fulness of our situation hits me once again and I weep.
Is it really any wonder why I can’t create?
Dad has gotten it into his head that I am longing and pushing my husband to move to Florida. He continually asks Mike and me when we are going to retire, have we planned for retirement, and when is it going to happen. This is a mystery to all of us. I have friends who have moved to Florida. I’ve house-sat for friends in Sarasota. I’ve had the great pleasure of staying in a friend’s condo on Marco’s Island. I’ve had uncles who lived, died, and are buried in Florida. Burmese pythons notwithstanding, Florida is a lovely state that holds wonderful memories for me.
However, we have no desire to move there. Many areas are too commercialized for my tastes, the heat and humidity are unbearable in summer, but the biggest issue for me is the traffic. What would be a short, ten minute drive in West Michigan turns into a minimum of a half hour drive in Florida. There is no such thing as a quick trip to the store. I’m not moving anywhere with insane traffic unless it has an excellent public transport system.
And did I mention the Burmese pythons?
Trying to convince Dad this is not the case has proved fruitless and the truth is, this new issue will eventually pass. But Mom and Mike are both sick of hearing it since it has been going on for months. Interestingly, he does not bring up ‘the move’ when I’m around. He does question me about retirement (for me that’s a ways off - for Mike it’s a couple years), but not about my desire to leave Michigan and move to Florida. So Mom tried a different tactic and one day last week when I was there helping her with her emails, she asked me in front of Dad, “Donna, do you want to move to Florida?”
I answered an emphatic no, listed the reasons above and added, “Dad, the whole reason we moved you to Grand Rapids is so we could be close to you and be available to help you whenever you need it. How could we do that if we are out of the state?” He started protesting we shouldn’t stay in Michigan because of them. He still doesn’t believe he needs our help very often and both Mom and Dad think once Mike retires we’ll be footloose and fancy free to go travel the world. The fact is, they take vicarious joy when we take trips, because they themselves were world travelers back in the day.
But once a fear has lodged into his brain, he can’t let it go. And even though Mom said, “See John? She doesn’t want to move to Florida. I don’t want to hear it again,” we all know it will continue to be an issue in his mind until something else replaces it. I’m willing to be the awful daughter-in-law that’s taking his son away if it keeps him from some other, more detrimental actions or thought patterns, because that’s what it really boils down to. I’m a selfish woman.
Love is patient, love is kind. But it isn’t always easy and it often breaks your heart.
First of all, before I get to the main part of this blog, I want to congratulate Shelby, Cindy and Mary for acquiring an etching for their art collection. There are six more prints left if you are interested.
And now, about Julie...
Mom’s cat is dying. Julie (the name of said cat) is a rescue. Mom took her in 18 years ago, add at least a year onto that and the cat has been on this earth for almost 20 years. That’s a good life for a cat. Mom is determined the cat will live so for at least a year, Julie has been getting insulin shots twice a day. Since Dad can’t remember and Mom can’t use the left side of her body, guess who does that?
Actually, Mike does it most of the time. He gets up early and before work, drives to their apartment and gives the cat her shot. Then again after dinner. I fill in when needed. I think Mike wants to do as much for his parents these days as he can. He’s always been a caring and thoughtful son, but he knows his time is running out and he wants to make it all count. He’s wearing himself out in the process.
A couple weeks ago, Julie started having convulsions. Dad called and one of us took her into the vet. I don’t remember if it was Mike or me because there have been several vet visits in the past few weeks. Julie has stopped eating. Her blood sugar levels have been fluctuating wildly. Not only does she have diabetes, but now she has congestive heart disease and the medications are making her nauseous. Mom does not want to face the future without Julie. Again, I take her to the vet. Is there anything else we can do?
Now, in addition to working and elder care, we are going over three times a day to hand feed (read that force feed) the cat with a syringe on the very off chance that with enough food in her, she’ll take her medicine and with the medication her strength will increase so she’ll last another year or more. Part of me just shakes my head. The cat is failing, let it go in peace. But Mom has hope, and hope is important. I look at how Mom’s life keeps closing in on her. She can no longer walk, getting out and about isn’t impossible but it’s pretty darn hard. Most of her friends have died and Dad’s dementia makes it hard for her to form new friendships. But she does have her cat.
With that in mind, Mike and I do our best to make the animal as comfortable as possible and pray for the best for all involved.
Postscript: Sadly, on September 14, Julie died. Mom is doing her best to deal with yet another loss.
Recently, I met a group of co-workers for breakfast. One in particular had a need to vent but at the end we all agreed it was not about her, it was her expectations and she needed to let it go. Less than two hours later, I found myself in a similar situation. In caregiving, I had certain expectations but people who were more affected had different expectations. In fact, there were four sets of expectations and three of us had to let ours go.
You would think that with over a dozen years of caregiving experience – my mother with Alzheimer’s, someone’s else’s mother with cancer in hospice care, my husband recovering from injuries, and my in-laws – I would have everything going like a well-oiled machine. Alas, no.
The truth is, the biggest obstacle to my peace of mind is myself. When I first stepped into caring for my mother, I was at a critical juncture of my art career. I’d accrued a long list of shows and awards, had news articles written about me, and had my work mentioned a couple times in an art magazine. I’d been in some prestigious regional and national shows and had had two person and one person shows in some pretty good galleries. My main gallery representative was urging me to start focusing on the east coast.
I chose to put that aside with the thought I’d be able to pick it up again in a few years, but as each year passes it’s increasingly obvious that I have to lay down all those dreams and expectations. If I want the same sort of career I had, I will have to start at the very beginning again. I don’t know if I can or if I even want to.
Nonetheless, letting go of those expectations is a constant struggle. It involves a certain amount of grieving as you face the death of a dream. I’ve been postponing that grief for some years, but I think it’s time to face it head on. Art has changed significantly for me and it’s time to own that. Only by letting go can I find my way again.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.