It’s hard to believe that my mother-in-law, Joann Schulenberg has been in Heaven for four years now. Her passing took time. Alzheimer’s Disease is a slow killer, in comparison to other diseases. That doesn’t make Alzheimer’s Disease any less devastating, and in fact, it just might be more devastating, because before the end comes, the patient has already lost their memory. Still, if you look for the good in the situation, you might just find that while they may not remember many new things, including who you are, now that you are grown up, they have many old memories that can really enrich your life…if you are willing to listen to their stories.
My mother-in-law often wasn’t sure of our names when we came to visit her, but by the look on her face and the alertness of her posture, you knew that she knew that you belonged to her. Many people place a lot of emphasis on the patient knowing their family’s names, but that is just setting yourself up for sadness. And you miss the recognition that comes without the name. My mother-in-law did so much for so many people…from knitting, to crocheting, to sewing, to cooking, my mother-in-law did a lot for the people around her. She lived a good long life, much of it raising the vegetables and meat for the family. She saw eras of time that people today can’t understand. With depression and recession, boom and bust, mining and agriculture, she had a diverse viewpoint, and that made her, unlike the rest of the people around her knowledgeable in different ways of life.
As her disease progressed, my mother-in-law, lost her recent memories, but she retained the old memories, and she passed them along to her family…often in the funniest ways. One minute you might find yourself telling her what time to get on the school bus, the next you think you have her all figured out when she tells you that they are having dinner at your house…like you aren’t you. When you try to play along, and ask her what the “imaginary you” will be cooking, suddenly she was back and making you feel ridiculous, by saying, “I don’t know, what are you cooking?” I know people consider Alzheimer’s Disease to be a tragic, devastating disease, and I suppose it is, but when people think about how devastating Alzheimer’s is, they are thinking of themselves…what they are missing out on, not thinking about the patient…who won’t remember grief or loss, who gets to become younger in their mind, and who ends up without a care in the world. Attitude is a big part of dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease, and I don’t mean the attitude of the patient, I mean the attitude of the family. It makes all the difference in the world. Four years ago, my mother-in-law left us for Heaven, where her mind is clear again. I am truly happy for her, even though we miss her very much.
Most of us have either seen or heard of the television show called “The Bachelor.” The show is all about a single man in search of a bride. Of course, these days there are many ways to find the girl of his dreams, and most men would never go on television and let some reality show match him up with ten women for him to choose from. Of course, the idea of online dating sites is new and for some of us, still shocking too.
Many years ago, in the old west…especially during the gold rush days, the men in the west found themselves lonely…very lonely. They didn’t want to go back east, and few good women came to the west in those early days. Those were desperate times in the emotional lives of the gold rushers. The west was wild and unsettled, and even into the 1900s short on eligible women to marry.
There were no computers or smart phones then, and no dating apps or websites. So in an effort to find a wife, several eligible bachelors would stand in front of a log cabin, spiffed up as much as they could be, I suppose, many with beards, trying to let ok like a great catch. The photograph was then placed as an advertisement in papers back east. Personally, I don’t know if I would have been very inclined to jump on a train and head west to meet up with a man who was looking for a wife. Mail-order brides, sort of. These men would still have to woo the women, win them over, because these women weren’t slaves, and they weren’t required to stay. These bachelors would have to “sell” themselves and their lifestyle to these women, along with making the women fall in love with them.
I wondered, what kind of woman would answer such an ad. I don’t mean a loose woman, but likely a woman who was a little bit past the normal marrying age of that time. An eighteen year old girl would never be the one to go. Her parents would likely never let her, but s woman who was in her mid-twenties would be viewed as a spinster, usually a school teacher, so she could take care of herself. She could tell her family that she was taking a job in the west. I’m sure they would be upset, but it would be her choice. And her family would have known it. Some women had no one, so there might be nothing to stop them. Still, going into the unknown like that would be scary. I don’t know how many of these men successfully found wives this way, but I suppose that if even a few did, it would be a successful bachelor show…of the time, anyway.
When brothers don’t live in the same town, and in fact live miles from each other, it is easy to find that your brother has changed so much that you don’t recognize him. Such was the case for my Uncle Bill Spencer, and my dad one time when I was a little girl of about eight years. Of course, under normal circumstances, Uncle Bill would have recognized his brother…even if it had been a few years since he saw him last, but my dad had a couple of secret weapons up his sleeve. Dad had grown a beard, which is something he never wore, but this was a special occasion…a centennial celebration, and contest. Since Uncle Bill had not seen him with a beard much, he was at a distinct disadvantage.
Another reason that my dad was able to pull one over on his brother is that Uncle Bill was a gun dealer at a gun show, and he never expected his brother to show up there. When we arrived, there were a lot of people milling around. While we stayed out of sight, but where we could watch, Dad went over and started looking casually at some of the guns Uncle Bill had. Uncle Bill was used to letting people take their time, and was waiting to see if anyone had any questions. He simply wasn’t expecting his brother to show up at the gun show, and so he actually looked right through him, paying no more attention to him that he was to anyone else. When Dad finally asked him a question, it still took a moment for him to connect that this was his brother, because Dad did not look like himself.
I’m sure that Uncle Bill was shocked to find that not only was his brother at his gun show, but he had successfully pulled one over on him. The brothers were always joking around, and to be so successful as Dad was in fooling his brother was the ultimate prank in a long line of good natured spoofs that the brothers had played on each other over the years. I can’t say that Uncle Bill never pull a better prank on my dad, because it is entirely possible, but this particular prank was one that was not forgotten, and was probably ranked up there as one of Dad’s best pranks.
This past summer, my mom, sister, Cheryl, and I had the chance to go to Wisconsin and visit Uncle Bill in the nursing home where he lives since Alzheimer’s Disease made it impossible for him to live alone. Because it had been nine years since we last saw him, the memory loss from Alzheimer’s Disease was quite pronounced for us…even though it had actually progressed at a normal pace. We were pleased that while he did not recognize us for ourselves, he did know who we were once we told him that we were his brother’s family. As is common with Alzheimer’s Disease, the patient has good days and bad days. These good days are days when their memory is better than other days. We were so blessed in that while most of the conversation centered around the past, Uncle Bill was able to remember and relate much of it to us. It was sad to leave him, because we don’t know if we will see him again in this life or not, but knowing what I do of Alzheimer’s Disease, I know that as quickly as we left, he had forgotten that we were ever there…a blessing in some ways. He didn’t have to feel the sadness of parting that we did. He didn’t even remember that we had been there, but that’s ok, because we knew that we had been there, and he enjoyed the visit while it was taking place. Today is Uncle Bill’s 93rd birthday…an amazing accomplishment for him. Happy birthday Uncle Bill!! Have a wonderful day!! We love you very much!!
Losing a loved one is never an easy thing, but rather seems to be an inevitable part of life. There is never a good time for it, and in fact, when it involves a baby or a child, it is always too soon. They haven’t had the chance to have a life really, not like their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even their parents. Nevertheless, losing a loved one…no matter their age, is a heart wrenching thing. Those who remain feel hollowed out inside, because there is simply an emptiness that always remains in the place that had been inhabited by the loved one who has passed. For a Christian, it isn’t about thinking they will never see that person again, because we believe that those who live in the Lord, never see each other for the last time. It’s more about not really being prepared to wait for that day to come, when they will finally get a glimpse into Heaven, and know the absolute joy their loved one has been experiencing since they went home.
None of us gets to go through life without ever losing someone…at least not if we have spent much time here on Earth. Still, the loss of a child seems to be an especially cruel type of loss. It is one I have never personally experienced. Other members of my family have, but I can’t really know the pain they feel. The loss of an infant, whether through miscarriage or after they were born, must be excruciating. The parents can’t imagine letting their baby go on ahead of them to Heaven, because they are simply too little to go somewhere alone. Nevertheless, we can’t go, because they live in Heaven now, and we do not. We are still waiting for our turn to go, so that we can finally have that first glimpse.
We have to trust in the Lord to be there with our loved one to show them the way…or maybe it is really us who need the help. We are really the ones who don’t know the way. And it’s not the way to Heaven that is lost to us, but rather the way to go on…here, that eludes us. Our hearts just feel like they are too tired to take another beat, and yet they must. There are others who depend on us too. We have to carry on. It will most likely be the hardest thing anyone ever has to do.
On this day, four years ago, my niece, Jenny and her husband, Steve Spethman received a beautiful little daughter named Laila Elizabeth. She was the gift they had waited for, the daughter after three sons. Her time here would be very short…just eighteen days, but her memory will last forever, as will her life in Heaven. Losing Laila made it very hard to move forward, but Jenny and Steve took that step in faith again and receive a little sister for Laila, named Aleesia Juliette. She would bring much joy to their still broken and fragile hearts, but Laila will never be far from their thoughts…or the thoughts of her three older brothers, Xander, Zackery, and Isaac. They will all continue to look forward to that first glimpse of Heaven, and the time when they will be united with Laila forever. Happy birthday in Heaven Princess Laila. I know it will be a wonderful day. We love you baby girl, and we can’t wait to get to know you in Heaven.
Most of us have watched the movie Groundhog’s Day before, and thought that it was a funny show, and it was…at least for a while. Then, it got to the point where you, like the character in the show, thought this was ridiculous. You already know what is going to happen, because it has happened over and over again. For most of us, this scenario would be a serious annoyance, but for my mother-in-law, this is her life…and she isn’t bothered by it at all…nor am I. I suppose that because most people think of Alzheimer’s Disease only in it’s negative aspects, they think that the loss of recent memory is the most horrible thing that could happen to a person, and in the area of new additions to a family, that is true to a degree, but while it is sad that this grandmother will never really remember the new in-laws that arrive from the marriages of her children or grandchildren, nor will she ever know her new grandchildren, and yes…that is very sad for us…but she will never feel that sadness. Nor will she ever feel the sadness of loss, and that is a good thing in my mind.
Most of us go through many times of loss and sadness during our lifetime, but those with Alzheimer’s Disease don’t. We can think of Alzheimer’s Disease as a horrible end of things, and since I have never seen the very end of the disease, I can’t say that it doesn’t end horribly, but between the beginning and the end of it, there can be some very funny times. Things like not wanting to go to bed until someone comes to tell them if they won a prize or not, and then when they are told that the awards ceremony is the next night, they go to bed without question. It all depends on what things they were interested in before. My mother-in-law liked the thought of winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, so that was the illusion her mind came up with, and that was my answer to it.
I am thankful that her life was filled with good things, so that her memories are sweet and not scary, because I also think that Alzheimer’s Disease can be very torturous for those who have memories of sad or scary times…like being lost for instance. I would hate to think of that kind of a memory being the kind that was running through my mother-in-law’s head, and sadly I have seen people with the disease who live with that memory over and over again. Nothing can be done, but to comfort their worried mind…over and over again. I can only feel bad for them and for their families.
From what I have seen of Alzheimer’s Disease, every action taken by the patient has more logic to it than people know. While the person who is asking for help over and over before asking someone to let them in, has probably been locked out of the house at night before, the person, like my mother-in-law, might pour her drink into her plate, because pureed food looks like oatmeal to her. She is also known to play with a blanket or napkin or nothing at all, and yet she is doing something very specific. If you know her like I do, you realize that she is working of an afghan or a potholder or a dishcloth, because for years she made those things, and she thinks she still is. I guess, when you think about it, all they really need is someone to understand that they are stuck in a time loop.
My father-in-law passed away on May 5, 2013, but my mother-in-law is doing ok. Alzheimer’s Disease has removed all memory of his passing. I know that many people look at Alzheimer’s Disease as being a cruel thief. I can agree with the thief part, in that it has taken her memory of recent events away, but cruel…maybe not. Her mind simply creates its own reality. In her mind he is not gone. He is at work or visiting the neighbors or out in the garage. Death means nothing to her. It has been the same with her parents, who have been gone for 28 and 23 years now.
I have long known that she lived in a world of make believe, but that fact never hit home as much as it did tonight, when Bob and I were out visiting her at the nursing home. She often speaks of those who are closest to her, and sometimes she speaks about you…to you, saying things like, “Caryn is going to be cooking dinner for everyone” when she is talking to me, or “Bobby is on his way to Grandma’s for the summer, to help with the cows” when she is talking to Bob. Corrie and Amy, work at the nursing home…at least in her mind, and my father-in-law is over by the telephone, so he will answer it when it rings. These were just a few of the recent things she has talked about, and things we are getting used to hearing.
Tonight…well, tonight was different. We were talking with my mother-in-law, and the conversation was following the normal lines…or at least, it was until it wasn’t. Suddenly she said, “Hun, can you help me get this afghan over to the sewing machine so I can finish it up.” She was talking to Bob, but to her, he was my father-in-law. At first we thought it was just a slip of the tongue, but then it happened again. She said, “Walt, you need to move that other sewing machine to the table.” We didn’t know exactly how to react. It was not the first time she had mentioned him, but it was the first time she spoke to him when it was actually one of the guys in the family. She thinks nothing of talking to him, but we know that he is gone, and the pain of that parting is still very fresh in our hearts and minds. We can’t be upset with her for what she says, because in her mind, it is reality, but to us it is make believe. Like it or not, we have to play along, because to do anything different is to make her relive his death over and over again.
I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of my father-in-law visiting my mother-in-law. Her mind will bring it up again, and it’s likely that her sons or grandsons will have to play the part again at some point. They will do it, as often as needed, because it is for her. They can do nothing else. They will play the part…so that she can keep her illusion that the love of her life is never far away.
This picture of my cousin Shirley, was taken in the 70’s. The focus isn’t great, but you can easily see how pretty Shirley is. This picture has stayed in my memory files for many years. It was taken at my parents’ house in about 1979 or so. I’m not sure why this picture has stayed in my memory, but a few months ago, I saw a picture that had been in a album of my dad’s, and this picture immediately came to mind. I was amazed at how much Shirley looked like this ancestor…whoever she was. I do know that she is from my dad’s side of the family, so she is related to Shirley, as well as my sisters and me. That would explain the similarity between the two faces.
I was, nevertheless quite surprised at the similarity between these two relatives. I guess we usually are when someone looks so much like someone else, and that someone could be 100 years older or more. It’s like time doesn’t mean anything, and relative closeness doesn’t mean anything. It’s all about DNA and bloodlines. That’s what makes us the people we are…or at least, the people we look like. To me, that is so amazing. How could things like DNA, which is too small to even be seen, affect the people we will become, in such a big way? Even though Scientists now know about DNA, they still don’t know exactly how it works, because there are lots of relatives in our family, and yet, not all the people in our family look alike.
I guess that is something we will never fully understand in this lifetime, but we do know that DNA can be used to trace our ancestors…with complete accuracy. That is something we can’t do perfectly…even with the wide range of resources we have these days…at least not without the help of DNA. Nevertheless, we have pictures, and memories, and records that have been kept…and with those we can go quite a long way toward knowing about our ancestors. The rest will have to wait.
Today is Shirley’s birthday. I am glad that the Internet and Facebook, two other resources we have now, have reconnected our lives. You are so important us. We were out of touch for too long. DNA and bloodlines have made us family…who we are has made us friends. Happy birthday Shirley!! Have a great day!! We love you!!
Through the 38 years of my marriage to Bob, I can’t begin to count the number of knitted, crocheted, and sewn gifts our family has been blessed with. My mother-in-law had such talent and creativity. I had a heavy sweater with my favorite activity at the time, bowling on it. My kids had everything from Strawberry Shortcake to skating to unicorns on theirs. And of course, each time they outgrew one, they got a new one. Bob had one with a sports car on it. These sweaters are warm enough to be a coat. In fact, I didn’t buy a coat for any of us for years. She made afghans, dish cloths, pot holders, and so much more. We were so blessed to have all the things she made.
For many years, my sisters-in-law, Debbie and Brenda, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, put their crafts in the multiple craft fairs around town and did quite well on sales with them. Everyone of them made things that were different from the others. And we have all benefited from all of them. It is always such a blessing when you don’t have to buy the things you need, because someone loves you enough to just give you the things you need.
My mother-in-law has been doing these things for most of her married life of 63 years, and in reality, still does them…but now it is in her memory. If you ask her what she did today, she will tell you that she made a few dish cloths. You might as well not argue with her, because in reality she did. She may not have used a crochet hook and yarn, but she did crochet the dish cloths. She uses the end of her shirt, and the oxygen tubing that she is holding. You might have to look closely, but if you do, you can see that she is wrapping the yarn around an imaginary hook, and she is very careful not to lose a stitch. If you ask her to do something with her hands, she really can’t, because letting go of her crocheting would result in lost stitches. The only solution is t o remove the crocheting from her hands, while reassuring her that you will make sure you don’t lose any stitches, and then she will do what you are asking…at least until her crocheting miraculously comes back into her hands again.
My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s Disease, and as you know, the cherished memories new, and later on even the old ones, begin to slip. Soon they will be lost forever. One of the best things the family can do for her is to help her to remember things. Old memories, and important data, as well as who these people in her house are. We try to keep her current on those things, in the hope that her quality of life can remain good for just a little bit longer.
Recently, after several bad bouts with pneumonia, several stays in the hospital, and finally a little more than two weeks in a nursing home getting rehab because her muscles were very weak, we have had a little more trouble triggering her memory. Her environment was not her normal, and my father-in-law was not right beside her to help keep that process going, so her cherished memories have slipped more. She was having trouble remembering her dad’s first name…something she normally gets right away. And when asked about her favorite horse, she couldn’t remember Molly’s name.
My daughter, Corrie had taken my father-in-law, her grandpa up to see her grandma, and ended up hearing information she hadn’t heard before. Today at lunch, she mentioned that she didn’t know that her grandmother had owned a horse…much less that she loved to ride, and spent as much time on her horse, Molly as she possibly could. I suppose Corrie wouldn’t have heard much about Molly, because my mother-in-law owned Molly when she was a teenager. Still, I guess we all just thought her grandchildren knew about the years when their grandparents spent much time living and working on ranches in Montana. We were wrong.
When you live on a ranch, it is quite common for the kids to ride horses to visit friends. Who needed a car when you had a horse, and you didn’t have to be 16 years old with a driver’s license to “drive” one either. So, that is what kids who lived on ranches did, and still do today, and my mother-in-law was a very good horse woman. She loved horses, and most especially Molly, her very favorite horse.
Sadly, as her Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, she is losing many of her memories. Mostly the newer ones, it’s true, but we also see that she forgets people she doesn’t see very much, and also forgets about things that she hasn’t seen or done in a long time. We try to remind her about her life by doing regular memory work, and much of the time she remembers Molly’s name at least, although I don’t know if she would know what Molly looked like. It’s that way with people too. She doesn’t remember the new people who come into her life, but figures it out when we remind her who they are, and she remembers the names of people from her past for the most part, but probably wouldn’t recognize them if she saw them. All we can do is keep reminding her on a daily basis, of who she was and hope that it will allow her to have one more day of remembering things like…Molly.
Old pictures can bring back memories of great times that you don’t want to forget. In my Dad’s letters home from World War II, he asked for pictures of his favorite spots and people so that he could keep them stored in his memory. As a young soldier, he was lonely for both family and home. He wanted to see the places they used to go, like Manitou Falls…a place that I have looked up online, and I can say that I can fully understand why Dad would like it. Not just because it is a very pretty place, but because it is a trip down Memory Lane. It’s a place we all need to go sometimes.
When I look at the pictures I have taken while Bob and I are out hiking, I can relate to my dad’s desire for pictures of those places he loved so much. When you look at them, you can feel yourself going back in time to that place again. Reliving the moments. The times of our lives. I love being out on the trail, listening to the birds and far away from the traffic and other annoying sounds of the city. The trail is a place of peace for me, in an otherwise stressful world.
Some of my favorite childhood memories involved our annual vacations. Mom and Dad took us so many places. We camped out, sleeping under the stars…no tent needed. We sat around the campfire for hours before finally deciding that we couldn’t stay awake any longer…mostly because we all hated to have the evening around the fire end. We woke to the birds chirping and usually a fire going, because Dad was up and had it going…the smell of coffee brewing and bacon frying filled the morning air…mingled with the smell of burning wood on the fire. Those are the memories that mean summer to me.
We all have special memories that remind us of the times of our lives, and they are a varied as we are, but each memory is precious and the pictures we take are a way to keep them close. I know that was what my dad was looking for when he asked for pictures from home so long ago as he was stationed in England in World War II. He couldn’t go home right then, but he could let his mind re-live the times of his life.