Hope and a Future
When I took my mother to a neurologist to get a complete workup on her memory issues, the diagnosis came with a thud. Alzheimer’s. While Mom sat there unfazed, I was left feeling hollow inside as a variety of emotions fought for control. The doctor looked at me and said rather casually, “You have nothing to worry about. This isn’t the hereditary kind.”
Nothing to worry about. Is that so? When Mom was diagnosed, the numbers showed that one in twelve adults were developing some sort of dementia. Over ten years later the numbers are now one in six. It may not be hereditary, but there is certainly an epidemic happening that can affect anyone.
I have long suspected that something is up environmentally or behaviorally that is causing the increase in the occurrence of Alzheimer’s. In 2005, a study by Susanne de la Monte's group at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, identified a reason why people with type 2 diabetes had a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's. In this kind of dementia, the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory, seemed to be insensitive to insulin. Not only could your liver, muscle and fat cells be "diabetic" but so it seemed, could your brain.
Feeding animals a diet designed to give them type 2 diabetes leaves their brains riddled with insoluble plaques of a protein called beta-amyloid – one of the calling cards of Alzheimer's. Scientists also know that insulin plays a key role in memory. Taken together, the findings suggest that Alzheimer's might be caused by a type of brain diabetes. When I heard of this study it felt that my suspicions were confirmed.
Because my mother and now my father-in-law developed dementia, I find myself trying to keep up with the latest research on the problem. There is very exciting news that has come out on a study that actually reversed memory loss. Dr. Dale Bredesen has had a very promising results with ten patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Of the ten, nine had their dementia reversed. The tenth was actually in late stages of the disease. The doctor is optimistic but does warn that the results are anecdotal and a more controlled clinical trial is needed.
Still, it is an interesting and encouraging approach. He has developed a protocol and personalizes it to each patient. In one patient, the program called for a gluten free diet with increased vegetables, fruits and non-farmed fish, stress reduction, taking melatonin at night, getting eight hours of sleep each night, optimizing oral hygiene, fasting 12 hours between dinner and breakfast and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime, and exercise. Another patient added coconut oil, probiotics and turmeric to the mix. If you are interested in reading the paper, you can find it here: http://impactaging.com/papers/v6/n9/full/100690.html
Be warned, it is pretty technical, but if you scroll down to the case studies you’ll see more of the protocols followed.
I look forward to hearing more about this research. In the meantime, I’m looking at my own lifestyle and seeing where I can improve my health habits. Dental floss, anyone?
Sorry about the link. It should be working now.
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.
It’s been ten years ago today that we moved my mother from her house in the Detroit metro area to Grand Rapids. It was an event that radically changed both our lives. While she knew her memory was failing and that she needed help, she also realized she was losing her home, her friends and everything familiar to her, and she was grieving that.
I knew I was putting my entire life aside to help the woman who gave me birth, but didn't raise me. And though I had already stepped into her life after not hearing from her in over a decade and done the hard work of forgiveness, now started the day to day grind of walking it out.
Throughout that journey, my life kept shrinking. I quit painting, I quit volunteering, and I quit working…bit by bit I had to let things go until all I did was look after my mother, who was increasingly resentful of me. Frankly, I was resentful of her as well.
We all long to have a destiny. I think that’s why Rick Warren’s book Purpose Filled Life was such a big seller. People long to have a deeper purpose than just getting up every day and going through the motions of living. As my life shrank more and more and I became invisible to everyone around me, I grieved that I no longer had a future. I had no idea how long this season would last, but I knew the world wasn't waiting for me when it was over. Life was moving steadily on, friends and acquaintances were moving ahead in their careers and lives while I shepherded mom through the last years of her life.
A rather startling experience occurred a couple years into caregiving. I was at a conference when a young woman I’d never met came up to me and said that God had revealed to her that I was an artist of some kind and that God wanted me to pick it up again and use it for Him. It took my breath away, and gave me great hope. But back at home, the day to day grind would continue and a couple years later I’d wondered if I’d missed the boat. God sent another stranger to say the same thing.
It’s exciting to have a destiny, and to have had the supernatural experience of people coming up out of the blue to confirm it. But I think we may forget that a purposeful life is filled with insignificant things. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, computer crashes, power outages, paying bills and other nagging, boring details make up our lives leading up to other times of great satisfaction. The graduation of a child, becoming teacher of the year, publishing a book, giving a presentation, receiving a contract for a gallery show, or any number of wonderful things are made up of really insignificant times. Changing diapers, making lesson plans, writing and re-writing, practicing in front of a mirror, working on fundamental skills over and over. All this and more takes place before the big things come to pass.
As a result, our thoughts can wander into dark places. “I’m a failure. This is useless. I have nothing to contribute.” These thoughts are poisonous. It is good to remember when Jesus was baptized and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” that Jesus hadn't done one miracle, hadn't called one disciple, but had just put in His time growing up, learning a trade and developing a relationship with His Father. Could it be that the insignificant things that feel like wasted time actually matter to God?
It is good to ponder on this as I’m transitioning back into art and writing. I’m back to working on fundamental skills. Every day is a reminder on how far behind the curve I am.
I’m right on track.
Note: The observation about Jesus' life comes from a CD series by Francis Frangipane called Holiness, Truth and the Presence of God. Here is a link to purchase that set. It also comes as an MP3 format. Used by permission.
Another Mother’s Day is past, thankfully. While I enjoyed celebrating my mother-in-law and spending the day together, I’m just not a fan of that particular holiday. It stirs up a lot inside that I’d rather ignore. It’s better than it was in my youth, but reading all the schmaltzy posts on Facebook about how great mothers are gets tiring.
Author Anne Lamott wrote a piece for Salon in 2010 on Mother’s Day which really nailed it for me. (You can read the entire piece at: http://www.salon.com/2010/05/08/hate_mothers_day_anne_lamott/) She wrote: “But Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.”
If you’ve read much of my blog, you know my mother did not parent well. That’s just the way it is. She wasn’t even a “good enough” parent. She just couldn’t do it. In a rare moment of honesty she told me that she thought that since Grandma had been such a good mother, she’d naturally be one, too, and was surprised at how those maternal instincts never kicked in.
But lest the reader thinks my mother was the personification of evil, I should set the record straight. Mom was damaged by her own home life and her marriage, and just couldn’t recover. I was collateral damage, but it wasn’t intentional. She did her best to provide for me by working full time at Sears in the bookkeeping department and she was also very aware of the potential of sexual child abuse. Paranoid about it, actually. I only met one man she dated when I was in my teens. The rest she kept away. The one I met was a peach, but I think he knew that mom was not marriage material and moved on. I remember him fondly.
Our relationship broke down so much that for over ten years mom didn’t even speak to me. Our story is not dissimilar to the story Jesus told about the prodigal son, except she’s the one who left and I’m the one who forgave and welcomed her back. It took Alzheimer’s to get her to the place to ask for forgiveness. Not a small thing for her to do.
While I try to be absolutely honest in my recollections about my life, here’s something I don’t want you to miss. While my mother was a deeply flawed person, she did ask for forgiveness and I did forgive her. Through forgiveness, I learned much more about faith, life and love. I’m still on a journey of healing, but caring for mom through Alzheimer’s took me much further down that road than if I had hardened myself to her and refused to let her back into my life.
If there is someone in your life who has failed you in a major way, do not hang on to unforgiveness. It only hurts yourself. Jesus pointed out when He was teaching the disciples to pray that we are in God’s debt and need to forgive as freely as He did. We like to skip over the part of the disciple’s prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) that says “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We love being forgiven…it’s just letting other people off the hook that’s so hard.
But remember...it’s a biblical principle that we will be treated as we treat others.
Note: If you have been abandoned by a parent, you may want to pick up Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. It’s about finding freedom from hurt and hate and written with Dr. Jill Hubbard.
Power of Art
In an effort to restart a creative life after years of caregiving, I splurged on season tickets for the Grand Rapids Ballet. Once a month or so, I get dressed up, find a friend who’s interested in going, and have a night out that includes visual and musical delights.
The most recent performance was called MOVEMEDIA, which is a group of contemporary works commissioned specifically for Grand Rapids’ company. Patricia Barker, the director of GR Ballet, gave a brief talk before the performances and explained the process of commissioning the pieces and how the different choreographers worked.
Rather than commissioning based on reputation or resume, the dances were chosen based on ideas, giving the work an innovative look at dance. The call for work was answered from artists worldwide. It promised to be an interesting night.
My friend and I took our seats and the first dance was introduced. This was a piece from a Spanish choreographer named Pedro Lozano Gomez. While working with the dancers he did not reveal to them what was going on in his life. He (and they) worked on the expressiveness of the dance. He wanted them to focus on their expression, and did not want their sympathy. Initially, he chose a title that expressed what life feels like with something vital missing. I believe it was “Missing a Limb.” However, Ms. Barker prevailed on him to name it “Juana” after his mother. The main character in the dance is “Mother” and the dance is about slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s.
This fact was revealed right before the curtain was raised and it sucked the air out of my lungs. Since, by current statistics, one in six seniors are dying with some sort of dementia, I feel rather confident that I wasn’t the only one. Still, there’s little comfort in that.
Thank God for kind and sensitive friends. Cindy leaned over and whispered, “Are you ready for this?” “No,” I replied. But just the act of asking me made it bearable. The performance was heartbreaking to me. As “Mother” was slipping away, I saw the others as her children and memories trying to bring her back to them. She drifts farther and farther away. I was quietly crying throughout the piece.
I pray that someday the art I create will have that much power.
Love is Action
There is a saying that goes, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” It's been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but turns out he never said that. The closest thing he said was something about how Franciscans should follow their preaching.
The book of James teaches this same principle in the first chapter. Starting in verse 22, James says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."
Do what it says. Why is this important? Because you never know who is watching your life. I'm always surprised to find out that someone has been observing my actions. I see myself as an ordinary woman. I'm not very exciting. So when someone tells me they've seen God in action in my life, I'm always left a bit awestruck at the idea.
When I was taking care of my mother, I went over every day. Day in, day out. I felt invisible to the rest of the world.
One day when I went over, I found her with small, wadded up paper towels cleaning the door sill by her entryway. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming that this place I moved her to was filthy, and that it wasn't cleaned before she moved in.
That simply wasn’t true. Moreover, her house had been a cesspool when I moved her – it was covered in filth of cats with no cat litter available, and the smell had been overwhelming. But because her outburst came at me seemingly out of nowhere, against all reason I replied, “This is dirt you tracked in from gardening.” That was a big mistake. It sent her on a tirade of how she's only been there a few days, she never went out and it couldn't be her. Because I'm a slow learner, I replied, “A few days? You've been here two months!” That really set her off, and she screamed that I was lying and the cycle was in full swing.
Later, I met Mike for lunch and it was clear that I was not doing well and he was frightened for me. I told him about mom's continual self-pity and how she was always complaining that her old life was so much better and now it's all gone. My life was gone as well and I was grieving that. I shared that with Mike and remarked that I'm not any different from my mother.
He was incredulous. “Not any different? Not any different??? That's totally unrealistic! Donna, it's awful of me, I know, but if I'd gotten that letter, I would not have answered it. You've shown me a new level of the Christian walk I've never seen. That woman has never been kind to you. She's always been unpleasant and, God forgive me, I would have thrown that letter away. But you walked in forgiveness. You're taking care of everything on your own, and you know if the situation had been reversed you would have been abandoned.”
I looked at him in wonder. God bless that man. He gave me a new perspective and he spoke truth. It helped me keep going. It also showed me that someone was watching my life and was being affected by it. Over the years of caring for her, more than one person remarked on watching me when I was totally oblivious of the fact.
So keep in mind the quote misattributed to St. Francis. Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words. Your life is your message.
Note: the letter my husband was referring to was Mom’s, when she contacted me to ask forgiveness and to ask for help. See the post titled, “Beginnings.”
“Ugh! Take it away!” These were the first words I heard my mother say. Our relationship went downhill from there and never really improved.
And yet, God chose to work in our lives. Why? I do not know. But He did, and about 50 years later I put aside my art career to care for a mother I hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years I was her caregiver, advocate and overseer, and it changed me. Spiritual development rarely happens when things are going well. It takes the crucible of painful circumstances to refine us and transform us into the image of Christ as Paul speaks of in Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” Romans 12:1-2).
When my mother contacted me to ask for help, I had to ask myself some questions.
Mom is gone now. I am trying to move back into a life of creativity. This, too, is a journey. Although for 20 years I was a studio artist with gallery representation, I am finding the transition difficult. But God has had some surprises along the way.
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.