Let Me Call You Sweetheart: This Week with Mom

My sweet mom fresh from the beauty parlour

This week Clive and I have been visiting my mother in New Jersey, following last weekend’s wonderful time with my son and daughter-in-law.

Mom’s Alzheimer’s continues to progress and, as I wrote on our last visit, I loathe the disease more and more as it takes away more and more of my mother.

Mom still knows me, for which I am extremely thankful. She’s still getting around with her walker, though she’s having increasing difficulty getting up out of her seat without assistance. Occasionally, when a program is held in one of the more distant rooms, an aide pushes her there and back in a wheelchair, though this is still fairly rare. She’s a real trooper walking back and forth on her own, one of countless ways she is, as she always has been, my inspiration.

Mom loves her special friend, the woman who was once a nurse. They have meals together and often sit side-by-side in companionable silence, at programs or in the lounge. Their faces light up whenever they see each other.

This week, we were able to attend a variety of programs with Mom and at other times, just sit with her in the lounge and in her room. I hung out with her in the beauty parlour one morning, which I try to do on every trip and we both enjoy.

Mom under the hair dryer in the beauty parlour

Mom continues to love anything musical most of all, and in the church service and several lovely music programs, she remembers lines to certain hymns and songs. I love watching her and joining her when she sings out ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’.

My mother is in every way a sweetheart. One afternoon as I was walking with Mom down a long corridor, an elderly man with a walker came up behind us and asked in a rather loud voice, ‘Is this your mother?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Dorothy is my mother.’

He nodded and as he passed us he said, ‘She is a VERY nice woman.’

Smiling in the mirror (and thanks to Donna for your wonderful work!)

I pray my mother remains content within herself as her Alzheimer’s advances. She long ago stopped reading and watching TV, and is having more trouble speaking and getting words out. But she still understands much of what is said to her, even if she forgets it right away, and we can still look at photos of her parents and talk about parts of her childhood.

During the week we had a few ‘ups and downs’ when Mom became anxious or agitated, but in hindsight I think the incidents were probably more upsetting for me than for my mother, thankfully.

Alzheimer’s is sometimes called ‘the long good-bye’. That is not a bad way to describe it.

As always, I wish we had more time to reconnect with more family and friends. I’m thankful we were able to see my cousins Sharon and Ron and Connecticut friends Sandy and Chris, along with my son and belle-fille.

God bless you, Mom and all our US loved ones. Counting the days until we meet again.

with my mom in the beauty parlour

Cheers and thank you for reading. Happy autumn or spring to all.

A Quick Trip to New Jersey

With my mom in NJ

Last week Clive and I made a short visit to my mother, son and daughter-in-law in New Jersey.

I wanted especially to see Mom in person, spend time with her and check up on how she’s doing both in her physical self and in her spirits. She always sounds okay on the phone, but that’s not the same as being together in person.

Nearly two years ago I wrote about Mom and the memory thief. Her Alzheimer’s continues to progress, faster now than in its earlier years. I haven’t changed my feelings about the disease; I just loathe it more and more as it takes away more and more of my mother.

Mom is still in her same room, still getting around very slowly with her walker and making the long trek to and from exercise, music and other programs at her assisted living facility. (A nurse there once told us they work very hard to keep residents walking because once they’re in a wheelchair, they often don’t get up again.) Mom used to hitch a ride once in a while on the motorised carts, but she’s become too anxious about stepping on and off (she shrieks or sometimes screams) so rarely does this now.

For several years, my mother enjoyed the company of a male friend, or ‘boyfriend’ as she called him. Since we saw him quite frail and unwell in May – it’s been many months since we could take her or them out in the car — he was moved to a separate nursing facility. Mom now has no memory of him. In some ways this is a blessing, I suppose, since she doesn’t miss him and never asks for him. In other ways, it signifies a greater memory loss that is crushing, though thankfully only to her loved ones and not – at least that we can tell — to Mom.

Mom has a wonderful new friend, a Jamaican woman who was once a nurse. They have meals together and often sit together at the programs; an aide told us they are ‘best buddies’. Mom doesn’t remember her friend by name, but recognises her on sight. Her friend is very kind to everyone, as is my mother. After spending several afternoons sitting with both of them, I believe that despite their respective Alzheimer’s, they recognise, at some soul-deep level, this quality of goodness in each other and for this reason are attracted to and appreciative of one another. Who knows? Two kind-hearted women are best buddies at the care home and this is something I thank God for every day.

Unfortunately there were no music programs the days we were with Mom, though she likes them the best. I chatted with her in the beauty parlor while she sat under the dryer, watched her one-on-one exercise program and held her hand while the long-suffering podiatrist cut her toenails. She screamed often and even Clive’s ‘close your eyes and think of England’ didn’t work this time. We spent most of the time just sitting and visiting with her.

In her room, we brought out her 90th birthday photo album and paged through, jogging her long-term memory about her parents and the house where she grew up in Paterson, NJ. She recognises photos of them and several of her childhood friends, but few others.

I remain thankful my mother is happy and well cared-for, grateful she has a new friend and still knows me and my son and usually Clive, too, though she doesn’t remember his name. I’m terrified of the day she doesn’t recognise me, but I try to appreciate the present and not look ahead this way.

I wish I’d taken more photos of Mom during this trip. For some reason, I only asked Clive to take one on our arrival evening (top of this post), when we’d come directly from the airport, weary and jet-lagged, and Mom was due to have her hair done the next day.

I struggle to know what to write about this dreaded disease, only that I wish we could be in multiple places at once so I could spend time with my mother more frequently. I know we are fortunate we can visit regularly and cherish every hug.

On a happier note, we enjoyed a wonderful catch-up with dear friends C&S from Connecticut (thank you so very much C&S for driving down), and spent time over the weekend with my son and belle-fille (a favourite French term meaning daughter-in-law, literally ‘beautiful daughter’). They are both doing great with work, family and life in general.

Already counting the days until we meet again.

My son and belle-fille in NJ

Cheers and thanks for reading. Happy almost-autumn or almost-spring to all.

Thoughts about Death: Apologies, Henry Scott Holland, but Death is SOMETHING and Our Loved Ones Are NOT in the Next Room

The first photo I took of Gary, a few weeks after we met

Today marks 14 years since Gary Frank Barnabo, my first husband, died in Sydney, Australia.

In the days and weeks immediately following Gary’s death, I received countless, heartfelt, beautiful letters and notes and cards. A dear friend sent the famous words of Englishman Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), from a 1910 sermon delivered when Holland was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (If my friend is reading this post, be certain I loved and appreciated your caring for me, then and now; it’s Holland’s words about which I protest.)

This piece is often referred to as In the Next Room or – horribly, in my opinion — Death is nothing at all. Different versions abound on the Internet; I share here the words sent to me:

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Pray, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant, it is the same as it ever was: there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.

In particular, this poem’s first two sentences and final sentence grated on me at the time (though I agree with the other sentiments) and still grate on me today.

Seriously, what NOT to say to the recently-bereaved is, ‘Death is nothing at all.’

OK, OK. I think I know what Mr. Holland meant: he’s speaking figuratively, metaphorically, saying the person is in the ‘next room’ of Heaven, or some kind of beautiful afterlife, where believers trust we will meet again in perfect love and joy.

As it happens, my faith is such that I believe, too. I believe there is far more to life on this earth than we humans can ever comprehend.

But I have lost a brother and uncle in an automobile accident, my first husband to cancer, my father to a painful albeit 86 year-old death and too many others to untimely ends — and I know I’m not alone in this — to think ‘death is nothing at all.’

Death is SOMETHING! It is EVERYTHING when it happens. For a time it is all-powerful, all-consuming and all-painful. And, literally of course, the person is NOT in the next room. They are in our hearts and minds but we pine for them. We yearn with all our being for their presence, their voice, their touch but they are not in the kitchen or the loungeroom or the bedroom. They are not there.

We weep. We grieve. We mourn. Two days after my brother Rob and Uncle Ted were killed in an automobile accident, my mother said, ‘Don’t be angry with God (I wasn’t, but she worried). God is grieving with us.’ I believe this. I believe God was grieving with me and Gary’s sons when Gary took his last breath on this earth and in the weeks and months that followed. I believe in the Footprints prayer that God carries us when we cannot walk on our own.

Gary and his sons at Kennebunkport, Maine

I understand the impulse that seems to have swept the world, to rename a funeral a ‘celebration of life’ but, gosh, sometimes I want to scream, ‘We are solemn! We are sorrowful! Life is NOT the same as it ever was! We are grieving this person’s death!’ The societies in which people scream and wail and pound their fists know a lot about how to grieve.

I know, too, that the response to a death depends on many factors, including the person’s age and stage and the circumstances of the death, not to mention the survivors’ relationships with those who have died. Sometimes death relieves suffering and for that reason alone is considered a blessing.

Even then, I assert, death – death from life on this earth — is NOT nothing at all.

I know Mr. Holland believed in eternal life, but he could have acknowledged that in our messy, earthly life, death is a life-changing something! The only ‘nothing’ that comes into it is that nothing will ever be the same again.

For quite a while, all is NOT well. It may be well, even perfect, in Heaven and for that I am thankful. But for those here on earth, even those with a strong faith, it’s not always so easy. My heart breaks for everyone who is grieving and I know that although time does help, it’s not always as much or as soon as some people hope.

Today I acknowledge the impact of a person’s death on his or her loved ones, and give extra thanks for the life Gary Frank Barnabo. I’ve written about Gary before, about our meeting and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world; about the tradition I’ve developed to scatter red rose petals in his memory each August 2nd – at Shelly Beach in Sydney, his favourite place, or wherever I may be.

Gary and our son when we lived in Connecticut

This afternoon, I scattered rose petals in the Felixstowe seafront gardens, onto a group of ferns since it was too windy to do much else and Gary loved ferns.

Then I came home to Clive, my second husband, who helped me find joy again, and gave deep and heartfelt thanks for him as well. I gave Clive a red rose for his desk, as always. Red roses for love, for the men in my life.

Thank you for reading and may all those who are grieving eventually find peace.

Visit with a Beloved Ho-Ho-Kus Piano Teacher

Miss T, a wonderful teacher to hundreds of piano students

Once in a while, an unexpected opportunity arises and we do something we wouldn’t normally do. Such an occasion happened for me today.

Without calling or writing ahead of time, I rang the doorbell at the Ho-Ho-Kus home of my former piano teacher, Miss Takayama, or Miss T, as I’ll call her (though she later married and became Mrs I and is now widowed). The petite but très formidable Japanese woman pictured above opened the door and greeted me with her beautiful smile.

I’m not sure Miss T remembered exactly who I was, but she welcomed me warmly and invited me in; I told her Clive was waiting so we stepped back outside and the three of us talked there.

Miss T told us she taught piano for 72 – seventy-two!! – years. She said, beaming, ‘I’ll be 99 next month!’ – that she was born in 1918 and her birthday is June 4. She lives on her own in the same house in which she taught hundreds of children to play the piano.

I was fortunate to be Miss T’s student from kindergarten through eighth grade (then took up cello, to join the high school orchestra — sadly, Miss T only taught piano). Every Wednesday I trudged up the hill, walked down her driveway, through her garage and into her basement studio. She reminisced about this today, saying because her mother, then her husband, lived upstairs she never felt it would be right to have her teaching studio in their family space.

I must offer huge thanks to this blog’s readers Sue and Candice G for their recent comments about Miss T, especially Sue who wrote that Miss T still lived at her Ho-Ho-Kus home. These comments appeared this week on one of my most frequently-read posts, Downtown Ho-Ho-Kus: 1960s and Today. Originally published in 2009, the post continues to receive regular comments from former residents. A number of us, when sharing special Ho-Ho-Kus memories, include piano lessons with Miss T.

When I read Sue’s comment, I knew I only had a day or two to react, if I wanted to try to see Miss T on this trip. This morning, I bought a birthday card. Though I normally consider it rude to ring someone’s bell without calling first, we leave tomorrow so I decided this afternoon, after spending time with my mother, I’d take a chance.

For any of Miss T’s former students who may be reading this, she is as bright and vibrant as ever and I’m in awe of her strength and determination to remain in her own home. ‘All my memories are here,’ she told us today.

After chatting for a short while and not wanting to overstay our welcome, I asked Miss T if we could take a few photos. She kindly agreed to stand beside her front door plaque, which reads, in addition to her name, ‘PEACE to all who enter; GRACE to all who depart.’

I found this very moving as it truly captures the spirit of this wonderful woman. She was a part of my life, week after week, for nine years, not only at each Wednesday lesson but also on the days in between, knowing she expected me to practice and I’d better do so! Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, Miss T was a steady, demanding (in a good way) and reliable figure throughout my childhood and early adolescence.

Thank you, Miss T, for your expert instruction, your encouragement and enthusiasm for my playing and for giving me the gift that whenever I was joyful or grieving or just needed to vent my emotions, I could turn to the piano and find comfort.

Clive took this final photo, which he promptly labelled ‘the long and short of it’. I couldn’t be happier Miss T opened her door to me today.

Thrilled to see this petite but très formidable teacher again

Heartfelt thanks from me and all your grateful students, Miss T. Wishing you the most joyful of birthdays as you approach your 99th year.

Mom at 93

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Mom as a girl in Paterson, NJ

My mother, on her 93rd birthday, had a lovely, busy day. She wrapped red, white and blue ribbon around a metal frame to make a Memorial Day wreath for next Monday’s USA holiday. She leaned on her walker and without complaint or other assistance made her way down the long hallway to morning exercise and back again to the dining room.

At lunch, Mom enjoyed vegetable soup, spaghetti and meatballs and – after blowing out her birthday candle – chocolate ice cream. Yesterday, at our small family party, she happily consumed birthday cake, several chocolates and a little glass of champagne.

Adjectives that still describe Mom: loving, empathetic, polite (the staff repeatedly tell me how kind she is to one and all), brave, sometimes anxious, almost always positive and always a shining role model of how to live with soul-deep courage and beauty and grace.

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Working girl, Sea Girt NJ, 1944 – oh those days at the shore

People Mom still knows in person or in conversation: her parents (long gone), me (her only surviving child since 1973), Clive (most of the time), her grandson and – surprisingly to me, because she’s a more recent addition — her grandson’s wife. Mom indicates vague recognition of other names and memories (her two nieces, her Ho-Ho-Kus friend Betty W. & Atlanta friend Edith C.) when we talk simply and quietly about the past.

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Mom and her grandson, Ho-Ho-Kus NJ

Mom’s Alzheimer’s is progressing, as it does. I’m no longer able to reach her on the phone every day, our nearly ten-year-old ritual. She no longer remembers I’m calling and doesn’t think to return to her room — often the only time I can get her is just as she wakes up. I try not to think about losing this precious connection.

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Mom with her daughter and grandson, 2012

How can I live so far from my mother? The reasons are complicated and some are private. I’ve fantasized for years about bringing Mom to me, first in Australia and now in the UK. Due to many factors, including her need for and contentment with familiar territory and the absence of any other family should something happen to me, I have not seriously pursued this path. This situation, at this stage of my mother’s life, is one of my life’s greatest challenges and greatest sadnesses.

I pray I will know what to do for my mother, what is right and best for her each step of the way as her disease continues to progress. I pray she will remain content and feel loved and cared for by those physically and emotionally close to her.

I thank God for the life and love of Dorothy Dilts.

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Red roses for love — Happy 93rd birthday, Mom

God bless you always and happy birthday, Mom.

The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 3: Five Stages of Emotion (and our first selfie)

Our first selfie, 2016

Our first selfie, 2016

Yesterday Clive and I composed a draft of our annual Christmas letter, known on this blog as the dreaded Christmas letter.

Previously, I’ve shared my thoughts about this exercise in The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 1 BC (Before Clive) and The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive): Separated by a Common Language or Maybe Just a Comma.

The process demands a review of the past year and a reckoning with what happened, what we did and didn’t do, how we handled certain events and what we hope for looking ahead.

This year I observe five stages:

  1. Gratitude – for blessings of family, friends and activities we’re able to enjoy.
  2. Guilt – for living far from loved ones, especially my 92 year-old mum because she’s unable to travel to us.
  3. Frustration – that I went off the rails with my weekly blog posts at the end of May and am not making fast enough progress on my Paris memoir.
  4. Self-criticism – who besides us cares about this letter anyway? Everyone has positives and negatives in their lives. That said, we’ve always tried to keep our tone and content positive.
  5. Acceptance growing to satisfaction – send the darn thing anyway. Not all our friends are on Facebook and some tell us they enjoy our letter. As time goes by, the letters becomes valuable to us as a body of words and images that render and reveal and help us remember the stories of our lives.

Despite my stated goal at the end of 2014 to learn how to take a couples’ selfie, we have not exactly mastered this skill. However we did attempt one selfie in 2016. In the interest of honesty and openness I have shared it above, but to me it is prima facie evidence that we have a long way to go to take a proper selfie. Clive says latent skill is evident because we got the Eiffel Tower between our heads.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and joyful holiday season with whatever cards, letters and/or photo traditions you may or may not choose.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

Continue reading

Nine Goals for May

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Part of the plan: Paris is always a good idea

  1. Spend time with my son and belle-fille in New Jersey.
  2. Spend time with my mom in NJ and help her celebrate her 92nd birthday.
  3. Find time to connect with friends in the U.S., if not on our short visit in May, then on our next trip in July.
  4. Resume work on my Paris memoir. Try to complete the next chapter but don’t overly stress as long as good progress is made. Write in Paris before going to New Jersey.
  5. Enjoy being out and about in Paris when we return there from New Jersey.
  6. Keep up with friends, activities and appointments in Felixstowe before we depart.
  7. Remind myself we knew the first 6-7 months of this year would involve a great deal of travel, mostly to see family. Try to be mindful of the need to pace ourselves along the way.
  8. Get over lingering jet lag and weariness I’m still feeling from a month Down Under.
  9. Be grateful we’re able to, as per our motto, ‘Travel while we can.’
Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Clive calls it our travel roundabout

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