After publishing my blog entry Happy Holidays, a lot of people ask me if I thought my mother-in-law would recognize her wedding china this year. My answer, of course, was “I don’t know.” The thing I have learned from living with her and caring for her this past year is “to expect the unexpected”—or my accurately, expect nothing and just wait and see what happens. Nothing is predictable.
Now, I can report what happened. Did she recognize the china? Did it spark any conversation? No.
If she did, she never let on. She was silent Thanksgiving Day. She did, however, feed herself. That’s remarkable feat these days. Maybe she was inspired to do so because the food was so good or the table was so beautifully dressed. Perhaps it was because my cousin, whom she did not seem to recognize, was seated at the table next to her. I’ve noticed she musters all her energy and puts in that extra effort for company.
I’ve also been asked by folks who read In Search of a Tradition to share how the Post-Thanksgiving Day Campfire went.
I think we found our tradition! Because yes, it went that well.
Earlier in the day, I was making chili, cleaning up, and thinking, “Oh, this is a bad idea! Whatever possessed me to think I could have a normal life while she is still alive?” I was feeling jittery—probably because we entertain so seldom. I was feeling harried because I had so much to do and yet, NOW, my mother-in-law was talking again. Yes, after weeks of not speaking to me at all—and that is no exaggeration—she became talkative and animated.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” she demanded to know several times. She shook her finger at me, frowned, and yelled.
Each time, I would calmly sit down next to her, put my arm around her and tell her, “Mom. I’m Susan. I’m your daughter-in-law. I’m married to your son, Anthony.”
She would relax her face. “Oh, okay.”
But a few minutes later, she would be yelling, “Who are you? Why are you here?”
She did this several times and I felt that it was really slowing my party-prep momentum.
I felt badly for her because when she is this aware, it must be a lot like being trapped in a dream. You know how in a dream, you might recognize certain people and places, but still there is a lot that just doesn’t make sense? I’ve often thought that that must be what it is like to have dementia. “So, I had this dream: I’m sitting at a table listening to Tango music, and I see this woman I don’t know come into the room with a vacuum cleaner…” See? It could be a dream.
I’m always amazed at how comforting and calm and patient, I can be with her on the outside when on the inside, I have these moments of extreme bitterness. “Whatever possessed me to think I could have a normal life while she is still alive?” What else would you call that besides bitterness?
Bitter, but normal. I feel certain that everyone who has ever been in a care-giving position has had the same thought—sometimes, it is fleeting and sometimes, it lingers. Either way, it’s there—a desire to return to a life in which there was more freedom and more flexibility, fewer demands and fewer limitations. Oh, to live in a world in which we just don’t have to take granny-care into account 24/7! People are pretty selfish that way–we want to do things our way and on our own time schedule, and I am no exception.
In the end, however, the campfire party was a success. We had a good time, our guests had a good time, and we plan to do this again and again. I can see it as a tradition that we will keep long after my mother-in-law is gone, but its origins will always go back to a time in which she was living with us and I had a desire to have a party at home without guests being in my home.
So, there you go, it’s a gift. My mother-in-law’s care is forcing me to get creative in redefining a “normal life.” We can still do some of the things we would have liked to do. We just have to do it all a little differently.
I am thankful for this gift.