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Today was my mom’s funeral. I planned every detail meticulously, with great love. She was surrounded by people who knew her, admired her, and remembered her from some point along the great, long winding road of her remarkable life.

I was so pleased with the elegant, beautiful service. My only disappointment was that music wasn’t provided for graveside services. I chose a longtime family friend to speak, and as he began his beautiful remembrance of her, he asked us to all sing the first stanza of Amazing Grace. He didn’t tell me that in advance and, as I sat there beside her for the final time, I was so grateful that he had thought of it. She loved music and some of her aides at the nursing home would sing hymns with her, bringing her joy as her life wound to its close. It was such a joy to me that her final song was sung to her by an impromptu choir composed of the voices of people she loved. And what a rare occurrence, privilege, and honor that I got to sing my mother to sleep, as she had done for me so lovingly as a child.

I would have loved to speak, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to be understood through my weeping. If I could have, I would have read one of my favorite poems. Funeral Blues, by W. H. Auden is not about a daughter and her mother, but it captures the beauty-lined pain of saying goodbye to someone beloved for the last time. Since I couldn’t read it for her, tonight I’ve found this wonderful reading, by actor Tom Hiddleston.

Rest in peace, dearest one.

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                  Sarah McCage
                     1919-2016
My mom died last night, quietly, peacefully, with me sitting a few feet away. If I had written the story of how she would leave me, it would have been what happened. Just the two of us by ourselves, in a quiet hospital room, with my two favorite nurses just outside the closed door to help me through the aftermath with compassion, kindness, hugs, tears, shared stories of beloved family members lost, and even laughter. I miss her terribly, but I’m happy that her suffering has ended and that someone so wonderful and dear graced this earth for nearly a century.

I came across some old pictures that to anyone else are just that. Old fading pictures. For me they’re memories that are as bright as the blue sky, green pine needles, and colors of sunrise on the days they were taken. They’re all from the yard of our farm where I grew up.

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This is autumn looking across the road toward a large wooded area, with a creek hidden from view running through it. I remark on that because such densely forested tracts are becoming rare, as more and more trees go down so houses with large yards can go up or agriculture continues to grow. The field struck by such bright sunlight belonged to a relative for a long time. Often neighboring farms were held by extended family members for several generations, but as the last farming inclined members died their farms were sold to big operators, until all family connections to neighboring lands are lost. This road has long since been paved, but I can so vividly remember creeping along in the hot sun as a little kid, squatting occasionally to study individual rocks among the jagged layer of gravel. Even growing up on a gravel road can be cool, if you know how to make it that way. My mom did. She made it both educational and fun, by teaching me to be a fossil hunter practically in my own yard. That gravel was quarried from who knows where, with ancient layers of literally buried treasure. Of course gold would have been nice, if we want to get really literal about buried treasure, but I was thrilled to spot something unusual and pounce on a special rock. There were sometimes partial foliage images to be found. I remember at least one perfect indentation of a tiny sea shell. It looked like a minuscule Japanese scallop had been pushed into cement, then pulled out to leave it’s shape behind for a child who would later come to find real Japanese scallop shells lying along Shell Beach on Sanibel Island. Maybe that’s where my love of the shore, all shores really, originated.

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And here’s a sunset through the branches of the tree from the previous picture. That tree always weirded me out, because it almost cost us our house. My mom was starting to cook dinner when my daddy brought the tree home and we went outside to supervise the planting. By the time we came back in, a fortunately small grease fire had started. It was probably scarier than it was house threatening, but I never forgot it and it made me forever wary of pine trees. It was pretty, though, and perfect for that spot.

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A furrowed field blanketed in snow is a familiar sight on a farm.  I always loved the unique way it looked…corduroy ground, burrowed under a frosty veil, waiting for spring.

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This snow scene features my favorite pecan tree. There was a low branch on the other side, where I liked to sit and dream away a summer twilight. The old house in the distance was a lingering dinosaur, in that it had no running water. The well in the back yard was my only experience of seeing water being physically drawn from the ground. It was a lengthy process involving a metal container lowered and then slowly (the last resident was an elderly woman) emerging from its shaft, with water streaming from holes in the metal that had some purpose I didn’t understand. Even as a little kid, just knowing about that well made me extremely grateful for the shiny metal faucets in our house. That old house up the road was weathered and gray. I’m afraid the only time it ever looked beautiful was as a silhouette in this picture.

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In contrast to frigid winter is this warm, molten gold sunrise sky. This time the silhouette is part of the barn roof. Like the old house and many trees, the barn is long gone. Most of the old ones are. They had such character and a rustic beauty all their own, but, as old fashioned agricultural practices faded away, most owners tore them down to get them out of the way. Occasionally, a lone antique barn can be spotted still, sitting in glaring isolation, awaiting the day when perhaps with regret they will join so many others as mere memories of days past. This image lives in my memory as what I saw, rain or shine, fall or winter or spring, sunrise or blue sky as the view as I got on the school bus. A constant in a child’s life. A rite of passage on the way to growing up.

I’ve said that there will be times when I’ll write here about serious topics, now that my mom is in the nursing home. There’s no more serious topic than the many difficult decisions that are an unavoidable part of being responsible for someone with Alzheimer’s. I want to write about something a lot of family members who are caregivers have to face and I wish so much that I’d known about it before I slammed into it head on. If even one person reads this and it helps them face the unthinkable, it will be a blog post well spent.

Of course, having to put her in the nursing home was awful. That’s the first big decision hurdle. For some it ends there. The parent you’ve had to parent for so long settles into their new reality, which makes their life and yours better. Visits are difficult, but not horrible, and the awkwardness and even dread get better. The disease progresses, you endure, and it eventually ends everything.

There’s another side to Alzheimer’s I didn’t know about, until I was blindsided by it. Along with the symptoms we all hear about from the news media, movies, and relatives dealing with it, this unexpected side is unimaginable until it becomes harsh reality. It turns out that when my mom was even worse than what I’d thought was almost (I say almost, because unlike so many she always knows me,) as bad as it gets, I had to learn fast about the darker side of Alzheimer’s. Not all, but a surprisingly high percentage, of Alzheimer’s patients develop psychosis. There are hallucinations, delusions, aggressiveness…traits that were the absolute opposite of this amazing, wonderful woman.

She was admitted to a geriatric psychiatric hospital for behaviour treatment and medication adjustment. This step is incredibly shocking to a child caring for a beloved parent. I had to go to a treatment team meeting,
where her wonderful doctor explained how they planned to help her and answered questions. He wanted to put her on Alzheimer’s meds that he said he’d seen good results from. He also told me these meds came with Black Box Warnings, and that I should familiarize myself with them and ask any questions I needed to. I said I knew about Black Box Warnings and that I thought under the circumstances it was worth the risk. He agreed. She had no quality of life as it was, so a chance to slow down the progression of the disease and alleviate the scary psychosis was a potential gift.

When I got home I hit Google to look into the situation more deeply. These Black Box Warnings were even more dire than I’d realized, with the worst of the possible risks being death. Still, all things considered, I felt it was better to give her a chance to have even a little more quality of life. I worried, but held firm in my conviction.

I’m so glad I did. I just got home a little while ago from a wonderful visit. I sat with her and showed her pictures I’d taken with me of birds and animals. She oohed and ahhed, and we both enjoyed our time together so much. We talked about all kinds of things…the weather, my writing, how to cook asparagus, even current events. Even at such times I’m always thinking about what I’ve learned  that make things easier for us both, like being careful about overstimulation, signs she might be getting overwhelmed, keeping things simple and not throwing too much information at her at a time. There are times when I’ve seen all of that occur and adjust our visit accordingly. Today, and for quite some time since the meds did what they were meant to do, I saw none of it. She was the sweet, funny, wonderful person she’s been for nearly a century. For the time I was with her, I had the best mother in the world back.

I’m not saying she’s perfectly alright. She still has Alzheimer’s and will until it finishes it’s terrible course. They took her off a couple of the meds recently over some blood pressure issues and I was really worried that the improvements would end. So far that’s not happened. They’re intended for short term use and the goal is a slowing of the progression and easing of the more severe symptoms. There’s no concrete timeline with this illness. And there’s no timeline for how long the improvements from the meds will last. I could have these wonderful visits for a few years or the progression could resume at any time. As with everything else involved, I have to take it a day at a time. Be strong. Be resilient. Be her advocate. Be her child who carries the responsibility of a parent.

That responsibility is terrifying. It was such a difficult decision to agree to medication that might kill her. But the smartest thing a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s can do is arm themselves with knowledge, with compassion, and with wisdom. I’ve had so many medical  professionals tell me the importance of quality of life over quantity of life, when you’re forced to make vital decisions about the care of someone you dearly love, as their life closes down. Those decisions may come frequently and be terrifying in a rapidly escalating manner. My goal has become making whatever time she has left to us the best it can be. Choosing the Alzheimer’s drugs turned out to be the right decision. If they had done their worst, I truly believe it was still right to take the chance that they might do their best.

I’m making the decisions I believe she would make for herself, if she could. And for now I’m cherishing the memories of these brief, golden days when I can experience moments snatched out of time with the mother I remember and love so much. Each one is a gift for both of us, even though I’m the only one who remembers them the next day.

Any time there’s even a hint of a new anything by Australian singer-songwriter Paul Dempsey, I wait in breathless anticipation for a release date, a potential live performance to show up on YouTube, and then the release itself. This year the wait has been for his new solo album Strange Loop. As always, it was worth the wait.

The Something for Kate, also known as SFK, front man has been one of my favorite…everything to do with modern music…people for a long, long time. An Aussie friend got me hooked on SFK, and Dempsey’s amazing talents took it from there. Not only a gifted singer, he also writes deep and thoughtful songs and is one of the best guitarists I’ve heard.

Somehow, the combination of his mesmerizing voice and the songs he crafts have a soothing effect on me. Listening to his music can actually lull me to sleep, which is quite a feat considering my insomniacal tendencies. I affectionately call the welcome result of this power Dempsolepsy, meant entirely as a compliment. It seems to only be certain songs that carry this ability. Most notably Man of the Moment and Out the Airlock, from his first solo album Everything Is True, but Strange Loop as a whole can manage it at times. This perk of being a Paul Dempsey fan makes me love his music even more. I mean, what can be better than for an insomniac to fall asleep to music they love?

Strange Loop is different from Everything Is True, just as the most recent SFK album Leave Your Soul To Science is different from all that came before. All their albums are wonderful, in their own way. Dempsey’s three standalones (the two aforementioned and his covers album Shotgun Karaoke) are individuals, just as siblings are individual members of the same family. The thread that runs through them all is Dempsey’s
brilliance.

The True Sea is my favorite track from Strange Loop. The chorus has been on a loop in my head for days. In a broader sense the entire album is my favorite track from the album. There’s a soaring depth of intellect here that echoes throughout Dempsey’s body of work. It makes me think and sing and look forward to what’s next, even as I continue to discover nuances of what’s now. This is not the kind of album that would be easy to try to give rating stars, because this is the kind of music that brings the real stars of the night sky to mind.

The True Sea by Paul Dempsey

Last Chance Harvey is one of those movies that starts with a slow build. I seem to come across them quite a lot and sometimes wonder if they really are slow starters. Maybe it’s my lack of patience. It seems too rare to be engaged and entertained from the moment of fade in, but maybe I’m rare for being so demanding. I’m just grateful that a remote control makes personal movie editing so easy. I can be ruthless with the fast forward button. Something about Last Chance Harvey made me leave the remote alone, and I was rewarded for it.

There was something compelling about Harvey from the start, even though he danced right up to the edge of the milquetoast precipice. Dustin Hoffman is so good at whatever he does that he can hold my attention, where a lesser talent might not. It’s especially interesting to me that no matter what character he plays I see just a hint of Rainman, yet he rises beyond that defining character and leaves the hint behind. As I become absorbed in whatever he puts in front of me in the moment, I forget everything he’s portrayed before. That is serious talent. Emma Thompson brings her own charm and charisma to this movie. Between the two of them, my tendency toward impatience was overpowered.

Once the heart of the movie kicks in, it’s a real charmer. The unlikely late in life changing romance really drives home the notion that it’s never too late to find joy. Or rather for joy to find you. The idea that a last chance can lead to a second chance is so appealing. So is the idea that a downtrodden sad sack may have a romantic heart and soul lurking beneath his unfortunate inappropriate suit.

Last Chance Harvey transported me to London along with Harvey and took me along on his misadventures, his adventures, and his journey toward the courage it takes to reinvent yourself. Real life can do that, you know. Lead us down impossible paths and into dire circumstances that in turn lead to situations that seem born from pure chance. Last chance, second chance…this movie is about possibilities.

The ending is simple and sweet. Just like the story it tells of two lonely hearts that decide to walk hand in hand toward whatever future they make together. It rewards patience with a reminder that anything is possible for hearts willing to open to the potential of second chances.

Last Chance Harvey Theatrical Trailer

I’m so excited about this announcement , saying Wicked will come to the big screen in a few years. I love Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years novels so much. Those books make me want to vacation in Elphaba and Glinda’s Oz. To tour Shiz and The Emerald City.  To be swankified. I’ve listened to the original cast recording soundtrack so many times that it feels as if I’ve seen the Broadway musical. If only the original cast would be transplanted directly into the feature film. I could suspend any level of disbelief, if it meant getting to see Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth reprise their roles as Elphaba and Glinda. Actually, I don’t think it would take much imagination to believe those two brilliant stars are students at dear old Shiz. However, I’ll be happy to watch whatever movie the brilliant minds behind the play gift us with. I’m sure that after the experience I’ll be changed for good.

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