The Reluctant Caregiver: When the Brain is Living in Another Time

Recently, when Mom asked me the date — as she often does — she said, “Cathy’s birthday is tomorrow.”

Cathy was Mom’s first cousin who was raised by Mom’s parents from the age of four.  In reality, they were sisters, although Mom was 14 years older.

The next day, Mom asked me the date.  Although she has a “memory clock” that informs her of the day of the week, the date and time, whenever we are together or talk on the phone, she asks me the date about four times.  That’s because she forgets about the clock that expresses the precise date.

“Today’s Cathy’s birthday,” Mom said.  “I wish Cathy and Kenny would come visit me, but they probably can’t afford it.”

I was in her closet, hanging up her clothes.

“Probably not,” I answered.

This would seem like a normal conversation under usual circumstances.  However, Cathy died in 2008 at age 56 after a long battle with leukemia.  It wasn’t the leukemia that killed her; a blood stem cell transplant cured her of the cancer.  But years of chemotherapy weakened her organs, and she succumbed to heart failure.

In 2008, I drove Mom to Cathy’s funeral.  She was there and mourned with Cathy’s husband, children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends.  Cathy’s widowered husband, Kenny, has since remarried.

In their later lives, Cathy and Kenny were financially secure, traveling and enjoying themselves despite her disabilities from her illness.  In their younger days, when they were first married, they struggled as many young couples do.

It is the young, newlywed Cathy and Kenny that Mom’s mind remembers. The disease of dementia has destroyed the part of Mom’s brain that remember’s Cathy’s illness and ultimate death.  The part of Mom’s brain that stores the memories of Cathy’s young married life is the one that survives.

I told the story to a friend, who asked me why I didn’t tell her that Cathy was dead.  Couldn’t she learn that Cathy is dead?

The answer is No.  Mom has dementia and isn’t capable of learning new things.  The part of her brain that remembers Cathy’s demise is destroyed.  She has stored her memories of Cathy is an area of her brain that is not yet damaged — but it’s the section that remembers Cathy’s youthful newlywed days.

My rationale is that it is better for Mom to remember Cathy as a young newlywed instead of the middle-aged woman lying in her casket at the funeral home in 2008.

Dementia destroys memories.  But sometimes it destroys the painful memories and leaves the pleasant ones to live on forever.

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Ginger’s Soapbox: Flags

Confederate_Rebel_Flag.svg

If you display the Swastika or any of the flags of the Third Reich in Germany today, you face a prison term of three years. Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust under Nazi leadership.  It’s not a history the country wants to remember.

Four million African natives were enslaved in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The appalling practice of slavery ended with the American Civil War, and a symbol of the South is the Confederate flag.

Let’s not forget that the Confederates were, by today’s definition, terrorists.  They staged an insurrection against the federal government.  Those who want to make the Confederates seem not so terrible say the conflict was about state’s rights.  That technically is true.  But the primary reason was the southern states wanted to maintain the right to enslave other human beings. The other reasons the states wanted to maintain their rights are long forgotten.

Descendants of Confederate military veterans say the flag is a symbol of their heritage.  Do they think we are stupid? Have you seen these people?  They aren’t historians or even genealogy buffs.  They are racists.  If the descendants of the Confederates were truly interested in preserving their history, they wouldn’t have permitted their flag to become a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

As a former journalist, I usually support the right to free expression.  But when it is something that has become so divisive to our nation and society, there should be limits.

It’s time to burn the Confederate flag once and for all.

Reflections on Father’s Day

Dad and me in our house in Bergoo, WV.  I was about 5 years old.
Dad and me in our house in Bergoo, WV. I was about 5 years old.

On the occasion of Father’s Day, I’m taking a break from my usual upbeat or sickenly sentimental blog posts for some reflections on Fatherhood.  When it comes to my thoughts on Fatherhood, I forfeited my feminist card many years ago.  Fathers get a bad rap all the way around.  As a woman, I truly believe that we won’t be equal in the workplace and elsewhere until we permit men to have equal parenting responsibility.  I also believe that men aren’t equal parents, not because they don’t want the responsibility, but because mothers won’t permit them to be.  Those women are shortchanging their children at the expense of their own identity.  That is sad.

Those who know me well know that I had a close relationship with my father.  Not so much with my mother.  I grew up in a traditional family of the time — Dad worked.  Mom stayed home and took care of my sister and me.  She was a housewife, which wasn’t so unusual in the 1960s and 1970s.  Today, my sister has the same lifestyle — except she’s a stay-at-home-mom, not a housewife.  Honestly, the role is different today than it was 40 years ago.  More on that in a future post.

I idolized my dad.  He was kind, soft-spoken and loving.  He was very wise.  He liked to read.  He was curious.  An electrician by training, he read up on everything from fly fishing to bird watching.

What many don’t know is that my dad was raised by a single father to five boys.  His mother — my grandfather’s second wife (his first died in the flu pandemic of 1918) — died when my dad and his twin brother, Gene, were nine years old.  My dad and his four brothers were raised by his father, albeit not really well.  He was raised mostly by people in the community, his friends’ parents, and his older brothers and their wives.  He was a bachelor until the ripe  age of 32, which was old for a single man in 1961 when he married my mom, who was a spinster at 23.

And what few people know is that he died in 1990 of a massive heart attack while he was talking on the telephone with me.  I still cry when I think of it.  I still miss him, dream of him.  And I wonder how my life would be different if he were still around.

My mom, who was only three years older than I am now when Dad died — eventually remarried.  My stepdad was a great guy, an educator and hobby farmer.  His wife had passed away after a long battle with cancer.  When I looked back through old photos, I realized it was he who handed me my diploma when I graduated from high school.  Like Dad, he was wise and quiet.  Unassuming.

My dad’s last words to me were, “how are the floors coming?” I was living in an apartment that was the first floor of a circa 1800s mansion.  My roommate and I had made a deal with the landlord to refinish the hardwood floors in exchange for lower rent.

Some shrinks say that people typically choose partners that are most like their primary caregiver parent.  I have to say that is true for me.  Most of my romantic partners are more like my mom than my dad.  Only one stands out as being like my dad — both physically and personality-wise:  tall, thin, blue eyes, brown hair, square jaw, unassuming, quiet, intellectual, goofy sense of humor. I blame his similarities to my dad for the reason I kept going back to him, despite the fact I should not have done so.  I’ve learned my lesson.

But I’ve always chosen men who are good fathers with strong family ties.  Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have strong family tie of my own..  After my dad died, my sister and I drifted away.  We both maintain an arms-length relationship with our mom.  Those who are closest to us know why.

My ex-husband and I spent the better part of our 13-year marriage fighting for custody of his son, lobbying for changes in West Virginia’s child custody laws (which we achieved) and counseling other disenfranchised parents who were cut out of their children’s lives for no reason.

My current partner was a single father, gaining custody of his toddler twins at a time when fathers didn’t get custody of their children.  His kids are adults now, He did a terrific job raising them, with a lot of help from his parents, sisters, and his second wife.

My former stepson is a wonderful young man now.  I marvel at how he has developed as his own person — despite his parents and step-parents — since I met him when he was three years old.  Now 21, he lives in a major city, attends a prestigious university, and asserted himself against the influence of both parents in a manner that I uphold and admire.  I can’t take complete credit for his greatness, but I like to think I contributed to his upbringing and shaped him to be himself, despite opposing forces that might disagree. We stay in touch, and I consider him my son.  I’m deeply proud of him and admire him for being courageous enough to assert himself at a young age.  He has a terrific shot at being happy.

I was childless by choice.  Honestly, it never occurred to me to have children.  My father imparted the implication that intelligent, successful women don’t give birth.  My mother seemed so very unhappy with motherhood it made the institution very unappealing (my sister, however, is blissful as a full-time mom to her kids, so it wasn’t an attitude universally applied).  I greatly enjoyed my role as Stepmom, which is a lot like being an aunt or grandmother.  You get the glory without the responsibility.  I wish I were closer to my own niece and nephew, who are delightful, if challenging, and adorable children.

My current partner’s children are adults who are very different despite being fraternal twins.  They were largely raised by a stepmother who is no longer part of their lives.  They don’t need a parental stepmother’s relationship with me.  I appreciate each of them for the individuals they are, and contribute by offering my own observations regarding their parental needs to their father.  The daughter is beautiful, successful and independent.  The son is a sensitive free spirit (more like me), who doesn’t seem to care that he isn’t living up to his parents’ expectations.  I like that.

Sometimes I think that the only man who ever truly loved me was my father.  Intellectually, I know this isn’t true.  I know my partner loves me.  I know my former partners loved me, too.

But nothing will ever be the same as a father’s love.  And that’s a good thing.

To all of the fathers in the world — especially those who have been disenfranchised from their childrens’ lives for no reason– I wish you much more than Happy Father’s Day.  I wish you a very happy life, and an amazing relationship with your offspring.