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.
Abraham begat Isaac;
and Isaac begat Jacob;
and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar;
and Phares begat Esrom;
and Esrom begat Aram;
and Aram begat Aminadab;
and Aminadab begat Naasson;
and Naasson begat Salmon;
and Salmon begat Boaz of Rachab;
and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth….
Two years ago, my husband was inspired for Christmas. He purchased a DNA test kit from a genealogy service for me. This gift was deeply moving since I really don’t know anything about where I came from. My hope was the kit might give me a sort of overview of my roots. But it raised more questions than it answered.
I am sure I’ve mentioned before that my maternal grandparents raised me. They were both of German ethnicity, but from parts of eastern Europe - part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Grandpa was from somewhere in Romania and Grandma was from Hungary. I grew up in a household where German was the primary language. To say I identified with my German heritage would be a bit of an understatement.
Imagine my surprise when the DNA results came back and showed I was ninety percent British and Celtic. What? Fifty percent I might believe, but ninety? And where was the supposed Jewish connection? The scant trace in my bloodline seems to indicate that it goes back to Adam and not since then. My identity was being messed with in a major way, and it didn’t lead to any further family connections. (Unless, of course, for an additional fee you want to have access to more records. As if I have the time for that.)
On occasion, I revisit the website to make updates to my family tree. Recently, I discovered something interesting. The one and only story I have about my father’s family is that he claimed to have descended from a famous feuding family. It was never clear whether it was the Hatfields or the McCoys, and I suspected it was one of those family myths. Stories, that upon closer examination, are found to have little to no basis in facts.
But it turns out, he wasn’t exaggerating and there may be a connection to the McCoys. Now, in addition to descending from a stowaway grandfather, I’m also descended from people famous for not getting along to the point of murder. Not quite what I had expected from a DNA test. Considering human history, though, should I be surprised?
When our good friend died recently, my heart was broken into thousands of pieces. Not only did we lose Don, but it refreshed the grief of losing his wife three years earlier. One of my longest friendships and most dear, I thought my heart couldn’t break any more.
I was wrong.
Monday, after work, Mike sat down and said, “Chaz* has died.” I stared at him and thought he had lost his mind. Our brother-in-law is a healthy, intelligent, vibrant, and engaging man. He and Mike’s sister were due for a visit soon. This simply did not make sense. My mind was struggling with what he was saying and I kept saying, “No” over and over. Mike had to be wrong but the sadness in his eyes finally convinced me and I broke into wracking sobs.
Among his many accomplishments, Chaz had been a pilot for decades. He flew in the Navy and continued to fly privately when he got out of the military. As an engineer, he worked in aeronautics and when he retired he spent time with other retirees refurbishing aircraft. He had built his own planes over the years. His cars were not parked in the garage, since parts of planes inhabited that space. A couple of years ago he purchased a glider and was enjoying it immensely.
Sunday, he took the glider for another flight. It was a lovely day for it and he was happy to be in the air again. When he wasn’t back by late afternoon a member of the glider club contacted the local sheriff’s office to see if there had been any reports of a downed plane. The search began. Through pinging his cell phone, he and the plane were found. Chaz was pronounced dead at the scene.
My heart, which has been ravaged by loss over the past few years, is broken even more. Our family is overwhelmed with grief and it seems to be never ending. Prayers are always appreciated.
Most likely, this blog will be on hiatus. I trust you’ll understand that.
*His name has been changed to protect his wife’s and family’s privacy.
A brief litany of the past three months…
In January, I had surgery on my left leg to remove some hardware from an accident I had about five years ago. There was intense nausea the first day, but all was well in spite of that. Had to get off the pain meds faster than the doc may have wanted because Mom K. had a stroke and I needed to be able to drive back and forth to rehab and to Dad’s apartment to keep tabs on him. My yearly mammogram showed a suspicious lump, and I had to go back for more tests (all is well!) and Mike had emergency eye surgery to prevent his retina from being detached.
Early in March, on my way to see Mom in rehab, my mind in other places I got off the highway and didn't slow down fast enough. The result was that I was pulled over by the police. Fair enough. I explained to officer what was up, gave him my info and waited. Recall that in September, Mom was also in ER and rehab. That's when my insurance was due, and while we paid the insurance, I did not put the certificate in the car. I got a verbal warning for speeding and a ticket for not having proof of insurance in the car.
There’s also my job, a few trips to ER for Mom and Dad, and other smaller crises, and you get the idea. Elder care is not for the faint of heart or organizationally challenged.
The latest crisis-du-jour seems to be dealing with assisted living facilities. During the lull before the latest storm, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and I visited different homes with a specific list of questions about companion suites where Mom and Dad could stay together. After narrowing down the search and speaking to different directors, we put down a sizeable and non-refundable deposit to hold a space for my in-laws in a place not too far from my house.
My sister-in-law has been able to visit from out of state to help out with looking after Dad, and during her latest visit went to the place to check on availability on the chance we may be moving the folks when Mom is released from rehab. She was told that, contrary to what we'd been assured before, they can’t live together. They are sure we weren't misled, and of course you can’t get your deposit back. The former director, the one who assured us that this was the place we were looking for, is no longer there. Isn't that special?
The situation is ongoing, and yet to be resolved. I'm not sure if we’ll be taking legal action or if the administrators of this place will work with us for a better resolution. That remains to be seen. But it does seem that legislative work needs to be done in the area of elder care so that families can be free to care for their loved ones without running through a series of hurdles and financial obstacles to get them the care and help that they need.
Frozen water was everywhere. Another polar vortex had arrived turning November into January in one blast of frosty air.
Of course, I could not stay inside and keep warm sipping cocoa. My mother-in-law had been hospitalized and was being released that day…in a snow storm. I had been shoveling for four hours. First, to clear off the walks and steps, then to clear the front of the garage door, and then to dig out a path in the alley to get the car to the main street. The snow was wet and heavy and I was feeling my age.
But perseverance paid off. I broke through to the street. It was now time for a cup of tea and a breather. Time to try to pull myself together for the next part of the day. Getting Mom discharged, bundled up, into the car and back to her apartment. This time, I was leaving Dad at home. Dealing with dementia and a blizzard plus transporting Mom with an oxygen tank was too much for me and I had to draw the line somewhere. The left side of my back was starting to throb.
We could have transported Mom home in an ambulance, but she had gone into the hospital in her nightgown and I didn’t want her exposed to the extreme cold. She needed warm clothes and a warm ride. When I called to check on the discharge process, she was talking to someone from rehab, so I told her I’d be there in a couple hours and rang off. Experience told me that when leaving a hospital, it would take hours for every department to sign off so I didn’t hurry. As long as the nurses knew someone was coming everything would be good.
Sitting down with my cup of tea, I asked myself, why was I doing this? Why was I working so hard to make it to the hospital as the snow kept coming down? It had occurred to me as I was lifting that final heavy shovel full of snow that no one would do this for me. My husband would find a way to get me home, make no mistake, but he wouldn’t shovel out an alley to do it. I have no kids, nephews or nieces or even cousins that would do this on my account. My friends all have problems of their own and wouldn’t be able to expend themselves like this. I pondered on this as I sipped my tea.
John 15:13 (NASB) says, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.’ I had done this as a sacrificial act of love. While I love my mother-in-law, this was really for my husband. He’s been stretched as thin as I’ve ever seen him between long hours at work and caring for his parents, and though I’ve been doing a lot to help and I love them, too, I don’t have the same history or memories that he does and I’m not grieving the same way he is. This was a laying down of time and effort to show my husband he is not alone in his care journey for his parents and to bring him encouragement.
Sacrifice. It makes life richer. I should do it more often.
There are times I am amazed at the wonderful man I have for a husband. It’s not that I didn’t date good men when I was young and single, but because I didn’t have a good self-image, I would sabotage those relationships and end up obsessing over men who, frankly, were trouble.
But I did a wise thing in my youth. I prayed a very fervent and sincere prayer. Seeing many of my friends doing foolish and destructive things for ‘love’, I knew that on my own I would make the very same mistakes. So, I cried out to God not to let me settle for second best. In spite of my foolishness and willfulness, He honored that prayer; but I did not make it easy for Him.
Nonetheless, I ended up with a man who is kind and supportive beyond measure. He has been a studio assistant, a copy editor, a compassionate caregiver, a lifter and mover of heavy things and whatever else I’ve needed along the way. He cares for me, encourages me, he’s helped me care for my mother as she descended into Alzheimer’s and now he’s caring for his parents. Just this week, he took care of me as I went through some medical procedures, he cared for his dad as he had to relinquish his driver’s license, and in the middle of the night he cared for his mother’s geriatric cat who is diabetic and was in serious stress of an unknown infection – going to pick up the cat and his parents, taking them to the animal hospital, and caring for his mother as she had to leave her beloved pet for the night. Now he is making sure the cat lives another day by going over twice each day to get antibiotics down her throat, ointment into her eyes, and give her shots of insulin.
His sacrifices for love are monumental. I am truly blessed. I will leave you with this....
Sonnet by William Shakespeare
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his
height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy
lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
You know your life is out of balance when you are looking forward to a colonoscopy, knowing that for one day you will be unavailable and blissfully under anesthesia. I recognize this feeling. This is how I often felt when I was taking care of my mother. This is called “compassion fatigue” and it is a form of burnout. It happens to those who serve others without giving enough thought to their own needs. I have reached this point. It is not because I am unaware of my own needs, but rather that things have to be taken care of and it’s up to my husband and myself to care for them.
This past week my sister-in-law and her husband were here from out of state and they were a big help. We were able to search for some care facilities that would provide memory care for Dad, but also provide a space where he and Mom could stay together. There are precious few facilities that provide that sort of service. After many appointments, phone calls and visits, we were able to find one that we could all live with and are in the process of getting on the waiting list.
Tomorrow, I take Mom to a doctor appointment. Of course, Dad will come to “help” which makes the process longer. After the appointment, I take them back to their apartment, get them safely squared away and then go to work for eight hours. Tuesday is an equally busy day, but Wednesday…ah Wednesday! I’m scheduled for a colonoscopy. I will sleep for most the day and no one can expect anything from me.
The apostle Paul wrote in the book of Colossians to ‘clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ (Col. 3:12 ISV). I love the metaphor of wrapping myself in the garments of kindness. I don’t love the fatigue that comes when I don’t show the same kindness to myself.
When I was caring for my mother, there were wonderful people who came along side me and helped me helping her. The very best was when someone would come and visit her to give me time off. God bless each and every person who did that. Taking a therapy dog to visit her, spending and evening making dinner and sitting with her, taking her to church or into their homes for a holiday so we could spend time with Mike’s family. Priceless, priceless gifts of their time.
If you know someone caring for someone with dementia or some other disability, have compassion on the compassionate. Clothe yourself with kindness and give them some time off to catch their breath. They’re in a marathon and they need you.
Poor little mama. She could never catch a break. She was the surprise baby that supplanted the youngest brother and he never forgave her for that. She grew up in an angry household. She escaped to work in a factory in Detroit only to meet a very handsome man, elope and have a brief, but disappointing marriage.
Motherhood didn’t work out for her, either. It just wasn’t her thing and one of the wisest things she ever did was give me to my grandparents to raise. By the time I came around, things had mellowed out a bit so it wasn’t quite as hard as she’d had it.
One thing she did do very, very well. She was a hard worker. She worked for a major retailer, slowly climbing up the ranks in the bookkeeping department. Women didn’t hold managerial positions in her time, but she did make it up to office supervisor. She gave everything she had to that company, and yet when things got tight in the economy, they showed her the door via early retirement. The one thing she loved and was loyal to, didn’t love her back.
She thought I’d be her entertainment during retirement, but she just couldn’t be in relationship with me. When I drew the line and spelled out my boundaries, she chose to disconnect. For a decade. Actually, a bit more than a decade.
Still, when she was in need, I did step back in. I took care of her the last seven years of her life. It was rough on both of us, but she suffered the most. And then, she died. We buried her in the autumn in the same cemetery as her parents and grandmother. She was laid to rest in a new section of the cemetery – far away from her family. The sexton told us we couldn’t lay a headstone until the following year.
Because of other emergencies that life brought to us, I couldn’t get the headstone until this spring. I chose a small, pretty design. Nothing flashy, but it was the same color as her parents’ and I thought she’d like it. There was a family reunion in the area last weekend, so I went to visit.
Two hours, two phone calls (to Mike to call the sexton for me), and copious bug bites later, I finally found her headstone. It was wedged in between two other large family stones and looks like someone took a shoe horn to fit it in. You can see in the close-up photo that the stone on the right is an inch away. The stone on the left is the same. Nowhere else in the cemetery are the grave markers jammed together like that group. I was deeply saddened.
My poor little mama.
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.