The Monterrey cypress is leafing out for spring. The whole tree is bright, fuzzy green, with leaves sprouting directly out of the branches. In most trees transitions between branches and leaves are more gradual. If you follow the trunk, you find a thick branch, then a thinner one, then one thinner still, until you reach a twig of a size that suggests a leaf is the obvious next step.
Gradual transitions allow us to adjust to the idea that something new is coming down the pike. With advance warning we can prepare ourselves for change, both practically and emotionally. It is easier to meet new circumstances when we are prepared.
When your loved one got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it was on the one hand a sad and scary day. On the other hand you were relieved to finally have an explanation for memory lapses and other disturbing symptoms that had been around for quite a while. A diagnosis gave you a label for the scary thing that was happening. It was not that your mother was a complete lunatic; she had a disease with a name, a prognosis, a stage, and a trajectory. Her diagnosis gave you some ways to prepare for changes that were likely to take place.
You knew some day she would stop driving, and she drove a little less each month. One day you got a notice from the state that told you it was time for her to come in for a driving test to renew her license, and you realized she had not driven in months. You didn’t renew her license.
Abrupt changes are more startling than gradual ones. Even though your loved one has a prognosis of a decline over time, sometimes change is sudden. Yesterday she lived at your house, and you were anxious about how to help her transition to residential care. Today she lives in an assisted living facility. Yesterday she was alive, and you were wondering how much more of this you could bear. Today she died, and you are planning a funeral.
When big shifts occur, don’t expect yourself to deal with them with the grace of an Olympic figure skater on the ice. You might feel a mix of strong emotions that you didn’t have time to process in advance. You might feel numb. Whatever you are feeling is normal for you. Even if you cope with your circumstances with all the grace and charm of an upside-down beetle, you are doing it just right.
Transitions can be difficult because you are leaving something old and comfortable behind, but they can also be a thing of beauty. There is a small, sacred moment when you leave something behind, pause and a take a breath, and step across a threshold into something new.
This, dear reader, is a Canada goose. We don’t get them in our part of Texas, but I was traveling away from the Bossy Spa this week, and this guy swam right up to me in a marina. He hopped on the boat transom, not three feet from where I was standing, and cocked his head inquisitively. I cannot imagine how he got this brave, but I guess people in the marina are supplying him with breakfast.
Wild geese are usually more timid, but this guy had figured out it was worth cruising the marina in hopes of breakfast. Failing that, he could always catch his own breakfast, since the land and sea nearby are plentiful with goose-friendly morsels.
This goose had never seen me before, so he can’t have recognized me as a individual. Instead he was engaging in pattern recognition, a skill common to all intelligent creatures. He identified me as being sufficiently like others who had fed him and not harmed him, that he was willing to risk hopping politely up on the deck beside me.
Pattern recognition is a fantastic shortcut. We don’t have time to figure out every particular circumstance, so we rely on experiences with people or in situations that seem similar. Like this goose we get through lots of life this way. I assume the checkout cashier at the grocery story is safe to approach, rather than making sure she is unarmed, because the grocery cashier fits a familiar pattern that I have previously experienced as safe. We all save a lot of time using pattern recognition, a key factor in intelligence.
This shortcut has its limitations, though. We tune our pattern recognition to our life experiences, and any one person’s experiences are a small and biased sample. If we have been lied to or cheated a lot, we will tend to spot this pattern more often than it actually occurs. We can become cynical and miss opportunities to engage in truthful and nurturing relationships. We develop our expectations based on our past, and our past is necessarily limited.
I point this out because the experience of being a caregiver is an unrelenting pattern. If you are living in the same house with your patient, caregiving thoughts and activities fill your waking moments. The entire world, it seems, is a grind of annoying tasks, repetitive conversations, and stressful interactions.
You might identify a pattern that generalizes to “Life is a terrible, exhausting mess,” and it may often be so right now. Today allow yourself to gently remember that there are other ways of experiencing life other than what is happening right now. One day there will be other joys and sorrows.
Since the Bossy Spa is in Texas, you might think that a blog post entitled Shoot would be about firearms. Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t know the first thing about firearms and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
This is a plant shoot, a plant shooting up out of the ground. This plant is actually amaryllis and it was a gift from a friend who works at Bulb Mart every year, which I have never attended, but visualize as a giant flea market for bulbs. She gave me a single bulb in a brown paper bag, and said it was from a man who harvests bulbs from old cemeteries around Texas.
The single bulb has propagated many times over the years, even hybridizing with the pink and white amaryllis I got from my parents’ yard to create a deep burgundy one. We will have gorgeous flowers soon, but I cannot resist putting up pictures of the pre-flowers, the inconspicuous bits of nothing that come up from the bare ground in preparation for spring. You can see the dozens of other shoots coming up around this one to form a huge clump.
I like these little shoots because they are loaded with potential, and there is nothing so compelling as the potential for good. Our circumstances too hold the potential for beauty and awfulness. You can’t really know which way things are going to unfold.
What we do know is that once we reach adulthood life unfolds quickly, like it is a race to the end. Before you know it you are married, and it seems not five minutes pass before you are taking care of your wife with Alzheimer’s. Ten minutes after that, she is gone.
There are lots of theories why time seems to speed up as we get older, but whatever the reason the experience is common. Even if you are living a 36-hour day, taking care of a loved one with dementia, as you get older the months and years fly by.
In this moment you are full of potential for something that comes next. Maybe your life is in a holding pattern, but maybe it is emerging from that pattern and it is time to send up a shoot. You might as well risk a little something now. Life if short enough that we will surely be gone before we try out all the things that interest us. As you make your choices today, consider how much time you have left. Use that yardstick to determine what you are willing to risk.
As the caregiver of my flower beds, I have a dubious track record, but things are looking up. This image may look like a chaotic green bit of nothing, but I assure you it is an exciting development. This is a tuft of larkspur that will invade the yard with blue and pink and purple flowers in April. I seeded for larkspur several years ago, and we get more every year, but last year I did something that proved to be a bad idea, so I worried it wouldn’t come back.
The thing I did was work too hard. I decided to mulch the beds. When Mark came in on the tractor I scooped up the cut grass from the top of the blade cover and mulched the beds with the grass cuttings. I hoped to add nutrients to the soil and suppress the bermuda grass that was creeping into the beds. The seeds from the mulch got into the beds and made more grass, and the thick pads of grass threatened to smother my larkspur and other seeds.
I have moved the mulch somewhere else, and all the work has gotten me about where I started, except I still wondered whether I had smothered the seeds. Imagine my delight in finding this green tuft declaring unequivocally that my larkspur are not about to be defeated by my failed experiment.
Sometimes despite our best intentions we do things that work against what we are ultimately trying to achieve. We labor and sweat and strive, and end up where we started or worse. We can’t predict which work will turn out this way because none of us can accurately predict the future. We make a judgment call the best we can and deal with the imperfections in our choices as they unfold.
You want to be the best caregiver, so maybe you make some changes to your mother’s bills to simplify things, having the payments drafted automatically, since she is finding it confusing to deal with payments. You were looking to make her life better, but she gets mad. She accuses you of trying to take her money and to make things confusing so she won’t be able to tell you have stolen from her.
You know she is not to blame. It’s just that terrible disease talking, but still her words pierce your heart. After all your effort, things are worse. If only you had not … but you did with the best of intentions.
Efforts that backfire are an unavoidable part of giving care, so go easier on yourself. Remember that even when things go awry, sometimes tiny tufts of goodness survive whatever indignities are heaped upon them. We may make things worse, but not decisively enough to keep sprouts from coming up and promising flowers in the spring.
Earlier this week I was thinking about making realistic wishes. I didn’t want false hope. When I picked something I could really hope for, I wished to see a cardinal. I wrote about this in a post a few days ago called Waterfall. Not a half hour after I made that wish a cardinal landed in a tree beside me. Of course I had the good sense not to wish for a penguin, which would have been out of the bounds of reasonable in my part of the world. Still, we don’t see cardinals every day, and one appeared.
Here he is in all his majestic red glory, perched in a small hackberry tree, a sight so lovely it can only have been arranged by Glenda, the goddess in charge of minor miracles for caregivers.
When I see this picture I think, “I need to carry a tripod with me at all times. I need to learn how to edit out the top of the t-post.” I want the pictures to be brighter, clearer, more beautiful. Self talk like this propels me to make changes and to improve my skills. I can do more with photo editing than before. I at least have a tripod, even it I don’t faithfully carry it with me.
If my self talk gets too critical, though, it works in the opposite direction of propelling me to make positive changes. Too much correction or criticism is deflating. We need some balance of constructive feedback to ourselves and a pat on the back, and it is hard to get the balance right. If we spend all day patting ourselves on the back, we have little motivation to learn new things or develop new skills.
Most of us wobble back and forth between being self critical and self indulgent. If you have trouble finding the balance that works best for you, that would make you normal. It is worth focusing on this for a day because making intentional adjustments in our self talk can help a lot in getting through the day.
A caregiver needs a lot of kindness in his self talk. Maybe today was the day you got a call from the assisted living facility. The manager called to let you know your father was found stealing items from other people’s rooms. You dealt with all that and now it is the end of the day. You don’t need self talk around how you could have done a better job for your dad. This was a hard day. Speak to yourself in a kind tone of voice. Say something appreciative of your efforts. Let yourself know how well you’ve done.
When you look at a weather map, meteorologists draw lines they call “fronts” that are boundaries between two masses of air at different temperatures. Fronts look like distinct lines on a weather map, and sometimes in the big Texas sky we can actually see them pass through.
The colder air usually collects under clear skies, while warmer air gathers under cloudy skies. When a cold front moves through, the front appears to push the clouds out of the way bringing cold air behind the front. I believe this sky picture shows a warm front (though I would welcome a correction from a meteorologist), coming over our front pasture. A warm front in winter works like nature pulling a blanket of clouds over you to tuck you into bed.
Boundaries like fronts are so curious. You might think two air masses would just mix together and settle in at the weighted average temperature of the two original masses. I have a lot of other ideas about what air should be doing, but air is not paying attention to my ideas. It has its own behaviors, and those include forming boundaries between one air mass and another.
In our relationships we might merge together as just one thing. The word “couple” captures that idea, two people who are now one entity. But even in couples a boundary remains between us. Some things only one person experiences. The other person can be having a different experience of the same set of events.
In your caregiving situation you may be a couple, but you are having quite different experiences. Your partner must come to terms with having a condition that erodes his capacity, renders him dependent, and eventually causes his death. That is pretty tough stuff. You must cope with his neediness, his confusion, your exhaustion, and your sorrow in losing him. That is no picnic either.
You might think the compassionate carer would do what she can to remove the boundary and to experience all she can with her partner, but there is no dissolving the boundary. He is the patient and you are the caregiver.
Despite your love for one another the boundary between you is now a protection for you both. Maintaining your separateness helps you not dissolve with sorrow every moment, so you can cope with all the demands of giving care. Your separateness helps you come to terms with the loss you experience daily, and will know more fully when he is gone.
The boundary between you isn’t better or worse than not having one. It is just how it is. If you were the best person in the world, it would still be that way.
This winter day, I wish I could tuck you into bed, and pull a warm blanket up over you. Since we are not together, make sure you tuck yourself lovingly into bed tonight.