It’s always strange to look back and realize that a loved one has been in Heaven for a year. The subsequent years aren’t as shocking, at least until your reach the milestones like 5, 10, or more. That strange realization is where I find myself today, the one year anniversary on my mother-in-law, Joann Schulenberg’s passing.
Over the years, much changed with my mother-in-law. She was, from the time I first met her, a stubborn woman, and I suppose that many people might take that to mean annoying, but she wasn’t. People might disagree with me, but in my opinion, the type of stubbornness that she had is a good form, because it is more of an “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” type of stubbornness. In fact, she and I are probably very much alike in our stubbornness, and quite possibly, that is part of the reason we always got along so well. She was a wonderful mother-in-law. My mother-in-law taught herself to master many types of crafts, including quilting, crocheting, knitting, sewing, and canning. These things served her family well over the years. Her crafts proving them with things they needed, and she made money on them too.
As Alzheimer’s began to rob her of much of her recent memory, she became more confused, but I believe that she and we handled it well. She became quite funny. Never one to joke much, she suddenly had a kind of dry humor that I can really relate to. She would surprise me with her quick comebacks, at a time that I thought she didn’t know what was going on, or who I was. Fooled me every time!! Whether she knew she had fooled me, somehow did it on purpose, or simply stated a fact as she saw it at that moment, it was always funny.
In all of the 11 years that I took care of her, my mother-in-law was really a joy to be around, even when she fought with me periodically. The time I spent taking care of her was as rewarding as the time I spent taking care of the rest of the parents. End of life care is really what you make of it. The person is always so grateful to you for your help, and there is a bond with them that will forever change them both. You can’t spent that many hours with your mother-in-law, and not feel a closeness to her. She told me about things in the past, and really enriched my understanding of my husband’s genealogy. She may not have even realized the impact that our conversations had on me, but they were like pure gold. Priceless, and a gift that I will cherish forever. Joann Knox Schulenberg lived a very interesting life, and one that was very different from my own. She was the mother of my husband, Bob, and the way she raised her children, enriched my life too. She taught them to be loyal, hard working people, who had self esteem and were respectful to others. She taught them to be kind and helpful to those in need. She raised her family to be close friends, and to share their talents for the good of all. They have always worked together on things. What more could a daughter-in-law ask of her mother-in-law? Mom, most of all, you were a true friend to me, and I miss you very much. I can’t believe that it has already been a year since you left us.
It is so hard for me to believe that as of today, it has been three years since Walter Schulenberg, my father-in-law, left us to go to Heaven. For 38 years he had been such an integral part of my life. From the first time I met him, he made me feel welcome. It was as if I had been a part of this family all my life. My father-in-law had such a gentle, kind way about him. I really don’t think that there was a single person that ever considered him anything but a friend. He just wasn’t the kind of man to create enemies…just more and more friends. His laugh alone was a friend making machine.
My father-in-law worked assorted jobs over the years, but his last job before retiring was with Casper College, where he was officially in maintanence, but in reality he was a jack of all trades. I have to think that one of the jobs he did at the College, if you could call it a job, was to drive the bus for the T-Birds. He went on a number of trips with them, and saw some great places. He got to see the ocean again. It was not the first time by any means, but he did love the ocean, and really enjoyed walking in the sand with his bare feet, something you seldom saw anywhere else. He almost always had shoes on.
He was the kind of man who would go out of his way to help others, and did his best not to ask for anythng in return. Nevertheless, in his last few years, he and my mother-in-law, Joann Schulenberg needed help. He had Emphesyma and she had Alzheimer’s disease. The family stepped in to help, and I had the ability to be the main caregiver. I say ability, but in reality, it was a blessing to me. We became so close over those last years, and it is a time that, even though it was the ending days of his life, I still cherish. I wish those hadn’t been the last years of his life, but I am thankful for the close relationship my being over at their house so much created. He said I was a blessing to him, but I think it was the other way around. Dad, I can’t believe you have been gone for three years already. We love and miss you very much.
When someone has Alzheimer’s Disease, or any form of Dementia for that matter, their family and friends know that there will be moments of clarity, amid many days in the fog. Those are the precious moments. Such was the case a few years ago, when my first cousin once removed, Carol Schumacher Carlson and some of her kids went to visit my Uncle Bill Spencer, who is Carol’s cousin. I’m not sure how long it had been since Uncle Bill had seen Carol, but it was one of those wonderful days. He looked at her and said, “Well, Carol, how have you been?” It was such a sweet moment for both of them. I’m sure that Carol expected that her cousin would have no idea who she was, but he knew her.
I have had those moments when I have been so pleased that the person I’m talking to, knows me and times when they didn’t. I can tell you that the times they know you are far better…but you don’t get to choose those moments. It’s just not up to you, nor is it up to the Alzheimer’s patient. It just is what it is. You have to treasure the moments of clarity, and deal with the fog, because the patient has no control of it. Believe me, if they could control it, they would. No one wants to lose their memory. Everyone treasures those memories, and when they start to fade, it is sad for them…at least until they just don’t remember them anymore. At some point, it becomes more sad for the visitors than it is for the patient, because they no longer remember that they forgot.
I am so glad that my Uncle Bill and cousin Carol had such a nice visit, and that my Uncle Bill was having a great moment of clarity, because the visit meant so much to both of them. Carol suffers from Dementia as well, and while neither probably remembers the visit now, the rest of us could tell that it was a very special moment. Sometimes, without even realizing it, kids can do something so special for their parents that, whether the parents remembers it forever or not, makes no difference, because the other people who witness it or see pictures of it, can see just what an amazing moment it really was. This was one of those amazing moments that will live in my memory files forever. I think Carol’s kids are all pretty amazing. They love Carol, and see to her needs in such wonderful ways. I love each and every one of them.
My Uncle Jim and my dad were a couple of characters. They loved to get together and when they did, oh boy…watch out. They would tease the kids and our moms, and manage to get everybody laughing. It was always such fun to have Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim and the kids come to our house or to go to their house. It didn’t matter how you felt before they got started, because after they started joking around, you felt great. It was just an ability they both had and when you put the two of them together, they were doubly funny. Sometimes I think they drove our moms crazy…especially when they got us kids going. And since they moved away, I think my dad always did his best to live up to the old tradition…or maybe he started it in the first place. It’s hard to say.
Dad and Uncle Jim liked to invent different soups too. They would just start throwing different ingredients in and cook it up. They were pretty good at all this, because no one complained. Many men can’t cook at all, much less make up a recipe as they go along. In fact, a lot of women can’t do that. I know I’ve tried to add things I thought would be good, and it wasn’t so spectacular. I guess you were just born with a certain knack for it.
We always had so much fun when Uncle Jim and Aunt Ruth and the kids lived here, and it was really sad to see them move away. Time and distance have pushed our lives further and further away from each other. My cousin Larry passed away in 1976, Aunt Ruth in 1992, and my dad in 2007. We hadn’t seen much of Uncle Jim, Shirley, or Terry for a long time, until Facebook brought us back together. That is something I am very happy about. My Uncle Jim turned 90 a few days ago, and while he is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease, I am still thrilled that he has reached such a grand old age. And I’m quite sure that whether people see it or not, there is still that little boy in there somewhere. Uncle Jim and my dad were always just a couple of little boys at heart
Alzhiemer’s patients, as you probably know lose their short term memory, but the more distant past is so clear that sometimes it seems like that is where they still live. In many ways, this is a truly sad fact of their lives, but if you look on the bright side of things, you can find a little bit of humor in an otherwise losing situation. And, when dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, you really need to find things to smile about. My mother-in-law and I have a very good relationship, but with Alzheimer’s disease, that doesn’t come without a few disagreements. As her mind progresses backward in time, she has become somewhat kidlike. Another problem she has is very itchy skin, and she scratches too hard, injuring her skin, so I have to stop her from scratching. Whenever I try to stop her, she says, “Don’t Esther!!” The first time she said that, it shocked me. My husband, Bob has an Aunt Esther, but we don’t look alike or anything, so I didn’t know where that came from.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Esther a few days ago, and I mentioned this funny sequence os events, and told her that she was helping with Mom’s care clear from Oregon…or rather she was doing all the stuff that got me in trouble. I told her that it was better for me, if she was the one who got the blame. We had a nice little laugh and then she told me that she knew why she said that to me.
When Esther was a young girl, her family lived on a ranch in Montana. Her brother, Bob’s dad had married by then, and was living in town. Winters in Montana can be pretty severe, making it hard for kids to get to school from the outlying areas. Periodically, Esther came to stay with her brother and his wife, Bob’s mom. As you know, kids can be roudy, and mischievous. It doesn’t mean they are bad…just kids. Being a mom herself, my mother-in-law had to keep order in her house, so whenever Esther would do something she didn’t like, she would say, “Don’t Esther!!” Her own kids, she might spank, but it’s a little different with your sister-in-law, so her main recourse was simply to say, “Don’t Esther!!”
Now it all made sense. I always knew who she was talking about, but didn’t understand how she was connecting me with Esther. We laughed about that for quite a while, and I told Esther that in my opinion it was better for her to take the blame, since she was a lot further away, and doesn’t have to have Mom really be mad at her. As for me, when faced with doing something my mother-in-law doesn’t like, or doesn’t want to do…well, I’ll just tell her that Esther did it. It will sure keep me out of trouble…sorry about that Esther!!
Imagine a world where nothing really makes sense to you anymore. Things just don’t add up. Try as you might, you can’t figure it out. You don’t remember what you did today, or yesterday…so you make things up that seem to fall in line with things you used to do. Still, nothing really makes sense, but you are sure that you remember doing that recently. This is Alzheimer’s, and my mother-in-law has it. She is 80 years old, but she would tell you that she is 65, because she doesn’t remember differently.
I spent yesterday afternoon and evening at the hospital with her for some other potentially serious health issues, and it was so hard, because she doesn’t know what is going on or why. It doesn’t do any good to tell her, because she won’t remember what you told her 10 minutes ago. When the blood pressure cuff would start to check her blood pressure, she always seemed shocked that it hurt, and wanted me to take it off. I guess that is a blessing in disguise in that she also doesn’t remember any other pain that she is in once the spasm, poke, or prod is over. She kept picking at the IV needles and their bandages. And she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t bring her any supper. I’m sure she thought this was the worst hotel she had ever stayed in. In fact, she told me she wasn’t staying at all.
Probably the most heart wrenching part of Alzheimer’s is the fact that while the patient doesn’t remember much of the things they should, the one thing that seems very clear to them, is the fact that this whole thing just isn’t right! I can’t count the number of times that she has look at one of us and said, “What’s wrong with me?” Few things tear you up more that to have someone say that to you and you just don’t know what to tell them. And even worse, is the fact that they will ask you again in 10 minutes.
Thankfully, she still knows most of her family…the ones that are around her often, that is. There are some that she never asks about, because they live too far away and don’t come often, but the good news on that is that she doesn’t know that she doesn’t know them, or know that they don’t come around. It’s hard to feel hurt about that when you don’t know that they even exist. Personally, I feel sorry for those people, because regret will come later for them, when there is nothing they can do about it. I will say, that if you know someone with Alzheimer’s, do yourself a favor, and be around for them, you will never regret it. There is great blessing in being someone they do remember.
We still don’t know for sure what else is going on with her. More tests today will help determine that, and it is with a degree of dread that we move into the day. No matter what is found, we will do what we can do for her, and keep her comfortable as much as possible. Please keep her in prayers as you go through your day today. Your prayers will be much appreciated.