There is a story about an old woman, recently widowed, who is moved to a nursing home. The woman is blind and cannot live independently. She waits, without family, in the lobby as her paperwork is completed and her room made ready. A staff member describes the room in great detail to her as she waits. “I love it already!” the old woman exclaims.
The nursing home staff member asks her, “How do you know you love it? You haven’t been inside it yet.”
The old woman, blind but wise, says, “The actual room and its furnishings has nothing to do with it. I’ve already decided that I love it. Happiness is a decision you make on purpose.”
I’m paraphrasing the story. I saw it originally on Facebook, and a google search showed that a similar story, but not quite the one that I remember was written by Joyce Meyer in “The Mind Connection: How the Thoughts You Choose Affect your Mood, Behavior and Decision.
It’s been some time since I wrote a blog post. To be honest, I’ve been feeling very sorry for myself. We discovered at the beginning of August that my 88 year old mother’s cancer had caused pathological fractures in her spine and right hip. She elected to have 10 radiation treatments to “beat it back” to alleviate the pain. Although I begged her to come stay with me for the duration of the treatments, she steadfastly refused to leave her home.
The treatments were harder than she expected. Due to the area that was being treated, there was a lot of irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract. She was frequently nauseated and vomiting, and there was nothing that I could do about it. Once the treatment started at the cancer center near her home, it couldn’t be transferred to the sister center near mine because of differences in equipment and dosages.
The day after her last treatment we received a call that she was gravely ill, and that management at her independent living community had determined that she was no longer independent enough to stay in her home. She was a danger to herself and potentially others. She had to leave, and I needed to be there when they broke the news to her.
I finished up some urgent matters at my office and drove south to Mom’s home. I packed up a handful of things in case I needed to stay overnight. When I arrived, Mom was sitting in her chair. Although we hadn’t spoken, she acted like she was expecting me. “I’ve decided to take you up on your offer to come stay with you. It will be a little vacation at your house – let’s see how it goes. I need some help.”
I was delighted that she had made the decision on her own. I knew that once she arrived at my home, she was unlikely to return to hr own, but we didn’t talk about that. I tried to get her to just get into the car so that I could help her (and so that my family could help me…) She refused. She needed to “clean the house,” and she couldn’t miss her doctor appointment in two days. I decided to stay with her for those two days.
To make a very long story very short, the doctor appointment never happened. Instead, my very sick mother slipped into a rapid decline and ended up spending the next two weeks in a series of moves that included two emergency rooms, three hospital rooms, two nursing home rooms and a bunch of procedure rooms.
I was with her night and day for more than a week that seemed like an eternity. Somewhere around day 4, my mom started to disappear. She changed from my loving mother to a scared, angry woman who told me that I was evil. She went from praising the staff to believing that they were possessed by Satan.
She was treated for electrolyte imbalances and a urinary tract infection. Each time they discovered a deficiency, I grasped onto hope that correcting it would bring my mother back. It didn’t.
She finally settled into a nursing home for rehabilitation. She was unable to do even the most basic self-care chores for herself.
I really, really wish that I could tell you that she is like the old woman in the beginning of this post and that she was determined to like her room before she even saw it. Instead, each time I would visit her in the nursing home, she would berate me. She would accuse me of tricking her into agreeing to stay with her so that I could put her into a nursing home where they torture her, make her fly on trapezes, tie her to the bed, punch her in the stomach, and leave her alone in the dining room for hours and hours without help. Gradually, I came to accept that the person that I love as my mother has rather suddenly disappeared.
One trip she told me that I am not her daughter anymore. Another time she told me that there are two of me. One is evil and one is her daughter, and she is not sure which one I am. She tells me that she wants to go home – but now she thinks that home is in Kidron, where we lived for many years, but she hasn’t lived there in a decade. Every visit, she asks me how her mom is – my grandma – who died when I was a little girl. Every visit, she tells me that she wishes that she had just died.
For two weeks at least, it seemed that everything made me cry. I stopped doing the things that I love to do. I stopped doing the things that help me to function – to stave off anxiety and depression. Instead, I cried. Sometimes I raged – I would scream in the car driving down the road when nobody could hear me. I have often told other caregivers “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” but when faced with the same sort of scenario in my own life, I poured and poured and poured until there was nothing left to give, and it still was not enough.
I would start projects – writing projects, crochet projects, cleaning projects -and then I would abandon them. My living room became filled with half-done afghans, dish cloths and hats.
One day a few weeks ago when I didn’t have court or client scheduled, I didn’t get out of bed until past 10:00 a.m. I’m an early riser. I get up, make coffee and then journal, meditate, and study. My husband knew then that something was very wrong.
We were blessed with a beautiful weekend in late September. My husband suggested a boat trip to an island. Reluctantly I agreed to leave – immediately. Instead of packing a large cooler full of food to prepare, we left with just our clothing and toiletries, a couple of packs of lunch meat, a loaf of bread, a bag of trail mix and another of potato chips, and elected to treat ourselves to a whole weekend of restaurants.
Although I used to run many miles each month, I had stopped doing that, too, over the course of the summer. There was a charity run scheduled for Saturday that weekend on the island, and I decided to register and do my best. I joined several hundred runners at the start line. There were several times that I had a hard time seeing the road because the tears were flowing so hard. I wasn’t in physical pain -it was a mental and spiritual battle. I crossed the finish line with tears streaming down my face. I started something, and I finished it. The 5k run didn’t become another unfinished project.
I wish that I could say that I snapped out of my funk and began living life again immediately after that 5k, but the truth is that it took another week of slowly beginning again to use the tools that helped me to function after the last crisis in our family.
Anyone who has followed me on Facebook or in my blogs for any period of time knows that I tend to post the happy things. My life is spent cultivating joy whenever possible. It’s easy to find joy in a flower when life is smooth sailing. Applying the tools is much more difficult when the waves are crashing and it seems that the world is burning down around you.
I’m learning that people can’t hurt our feelings. It’s our own thoughts about events that hurt us. It’s our own thoughts about life that bring us joy.
For those weeks in September, I spent all of my energy trying to find a solution for Mom’s mental decline. I spent hours combing my memory trying to find signs that the dementia was there all along and I just missed it. I spent hours trying to convince her that she’s in a place for help and that she still has a life to live if she just tries. that “project” took all of the time and attention from all of the other “projects” in my life. I finally realized that making myself miserable and allowing depression and anxiety creep back into my life – forgoing joy and happiness won’t bring my mother joy. It won’t bring her peace. It won’t make her want to live.
I choose life. Mom will be 89 in a few weeks. Whether or not she emerges from this event, her life is nearing its natural end. My visits always upset her. I no longer see her every day. It’s not good for her, and it’s really horrible for me. If she tells my kids that she wants something, I send it. I’ve stopped worrying so much about what other people think about the matter.
I’ve finished crocheting two cowls and I’m almost done with a poncho that I started at the beginning of summer. I ran again this week. I am back into my morning routine. I go to sleep giving thanks and I wake up anticipating a great day.
I am here to love my life, no matter what may come. It’s the only life I have, and I’m not about to waste it. This weekend I am setting up my office in a different room in the same building. I don’t know exactly what furnishing will fit or how they will look, but I love it already. I’m going to learn to knit on Thursday. I don’t know what I will make, but I love it already.
I don’t know what may come, but I’m certain that I can find beauty and comfort in it. I love it already!
Betty, I am so sorry for what you are going through with your mother. I have no personal experience to compare with, but I did have a friend whose mother, in her later life, behaved much as your mother is. The most helpful thing for my friend was something that one of the nurses told her: “ it is not your mother speaking, it is the illness. “ The nurse also added that when the mother started verbally abusing my friend, that she should just leave. Praying for you both.