Letter from Felixstowe: Tooth Extraction, Alzheimer’s & Guilt

AA Compass w heart

One of the themes of this blog is family globalisation, including the challenges of staying close emotionally while being far away geographically from people we love.

This week, at her assisted living home in New Jersey, my mother had a tooth extracted. The procedure went well, her mouth healed quickly and she has more or less forgotten it occurred (except when I ask her in our daily chats how it’s doing – she sticks her tongue in the empty spot and says ‘it’s fine!’).

I debated with myself long and hard about getting on an airplane. Many times over the years I’ve jumped on a flight when she was hospitalised or needed me at her home. This time around, my thought process took into account that the tooth would be extracted at her assisted living facility and she would be cared for without having to leave her home; the dentist and staff assured me in multiple discussions that all would be well; and I knew I could still go immediately should anything go wrong. On this side of the Pond, we’re in the midst of a renovation project, planning for my son’s visit next weekend (hooray!); gearing up for a trip to Australia next month; and looking forward to the next U.S. trip, booked weeks ago, for my mother’s birthday in May.

And more than any time in the past, an additional factor weighing in my mind was my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I email her every day, so she has something in writing, and call her every night. We have much the same chat each evening. She seems to enjoy our talks but tragically in recent years has lost most of her sense of time. With no short-term memory, she has no recollection of having had visitors, or when a visit occurred – in her mind, I may have seen her yesterday, or a week ago, or a few months ago. She still looks forward to our visits, so if I say ‘we can’t wait to see you for your birthday,’ she says that’s wonderful, then asks me how long it is until then. Sometimes she can still calculate the months, but often not. We talk about her parents and childhood, the family members she remembers (she still always asks what her grandson is doing) and I can usually make her laugh or we can share a happy memory of something important to her.

But what I can’t do quickly and easily is be there, hold her hand or give her a hug. I’ve thought often about bringing her closer to me, but for now she is happy, loves her 93 year-old boyfriend with whom she shares almost every minute of every day (they are dependent on each other in a way the medical and assisted living staff tell me is healthy and wonderful), and feels safe and secure in her environment.

I know that just because my mother is happy and won’t remember exactly when I was last with her doesn’t mean I shouldn’t visit as often as I can. This is my ongoing challenge and the constant balance I strive to attain, not always successfully. I will always live with a certain irreducible measure of guilt and regret I can’t be in multiple places at the same time or go back and forth more often. I hold onto the knowledge Mom’s looking forward to our next visit and I’ll do everything I can to make it a wonderful one.

A breezy February day at the Ridgewood Duck Pond, New Jersey

A breezy February day at the Ridgewood Duck Pond, New Jersey


Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

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5 Responses

  1. Hi Carolyn,

    I think it’s great that your mother has a Companion (“boyfriend” reminds me of teenagers!!), and Im sure their company mean a lot to her. Like the baseball players would say, you have to take one day at a time, and take comfort in knowing she is in a good place..both physically and spiritually.

  2. MarthaB, thanks so much – ‘companion’ is MUCH better! Mom calls him her ‘boyfriend’ — perhaps part of the disease to revert to those younger words. You’ve known us both a long time and I truly appreciate your thoughts. I am indeed thankful she is in a good place in the ways you describe.

    Best to you and John. Stay warm in all that New England snow — thanks again xx

  3. A very heart warming letter. You have a very loving family and all so close.. unfortunately not close in miles.. you do you best Carolyn , always on the move to the USA and Australia, I know it is not easy for you. Take care and safe travels.. Oh not to mention renovations too 🙂

  4. These are difficult choices as parents get older. I saw my father in August in France. He retired at 70 at the end of November and he died mid-February of liver cancer. I shall always regret not going back to Australia for Christmas but no one told me how sick he was. I got back in February just in time to say good-bye but he only recognised me once. We were not able to talk.

  5. annieparis, thanks for your kind thoughts – including about renovations!

    Rosemary, your story is so moving — I know you have always done the best you can with your own distance challenges, especially because it’s always been Australia for you — one of the greatest distance challenges of all!

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