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Caregiving my mom carried many ironic gifts. One is that I witness how love goes on–after death. My parent’s marriage lasted for 52 years. They faced the Great Depression, World War II (Daddy served for four years–in France, at the Battle of the Bulge, and then stayed to help rebuild the country), a miscarriage, an inability to have natural children, a two career household when that was quite unusual, and later–one illness after another, including daddy’s final battle with heart disease. What I realize now, looking back on this vast relationship landscape, was that love goes on. As a daughter and caregiver, I am profoundly grateful to have witnessed this.

My mother was a widow for 18 years. She would have never wanted that. She had no desire to marry again. Daddy was the love of her life–and vice versa. I was adopted when they were 54 and 58 years old. Established. They argued (petty but quite verbal) all the time.Both of them retired by the time I was in second grade, so they spent a lot of time together and with me.  They only have maybe two tiffs that seemed rather big the whole time I knew them. They were as polar opposite as can be. He was quiet, a bit melancholy. Deep. Thoughtful. She was loud, vivacious, and her moods were shall we say…unpredictable. And yet, they worked it out.

More than that, they adored each other. They complimented each other constantly.  They respected each other, bragged about each other, doted on each other. And yet, they were completely normal. She talked too much and that drove Daddy nuts. She micro managed his entire life down to picking out his daily underwear. Daddy was slow. Wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to do. Stoic. Refused to follow the doctor’s orders. That infuriated my pull-pushing, dot every i, OCD mother. He escaped each day down to his chateau–the garage he built with his own hands. That’s what marriage is like.

Daddy did all he could to look out for my mother. He left her a home, a generous savings, health and life insurance. More than that, (which all of that became less valuable over time–almost 20 years has a way of gobbling up money and goods) he left us all a legacy.

I’m grateful that my mother, who fought Parkinson’s and at the end, Alzheimer’s/dementia didn’t forget her husband–not until maybe the last year. We talked of him every day. We kept his pictures out. We shared stories. And as you can probably tell, I adored him, too. With all of my being.

And now, both my parents are gone. Time has taken them. That’s what time does. And yet, they remain. Their marriage endures. They are my example. I am profoundly blessed to have been adopted by such a union–and I say this in full light of my less than idyllic childhood (I did mention that my mother was unpredictable and for anyone who has read Mothering Mother, they’ll also note that she wasn’t exactly easy to care for either!)

Still, love is what endures. Spending the last years with my mother and caregiving for her daily needs gave me the opportunity to witness love in action. Their marriage carried over, like the scent of gardenia on a southern night. The sweetness remains.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Thanksgiving is more than just turkey, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. Sights, smells and recipes conjures childhood in a way nothing else can. As my mother’s daughter and caregiver I became the woman in the kitchen.

The roles shifted and I wore the apron but I kept my mother alive–by making dishes from my childhood–Waldorf salad, Daddy’s pound cake recipe, and the best dressing on the planet. I would set my mother in a chair at the kitchen table while I scurried around the kitchen–offering her a taste of this or that and smiling when even with Alzheimer’s she’d suggest a bit more sage.

And then my mother was gone. She passed on a warm June day in our home with the lace curtains swaying and a cardinal on a branch just outisde her window.

That next Thanksgiving was tender.

Whether you still have your mom or dad, or if they’ve passed, I hope you’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving essay.

***

Thanksgiving Morning

I get out Mother’s enamel fruit bowl, the one painted with apples and grapes and pineapples. I know it must be from the fifties. I get out the potatoes and peeler and begin scraping the brown strips that fly and stick to the edges of the bowl. The white chunks are placed in a Revere Ware boiler that Mother gave me as a wedding present twenty-three years ago. I fill it with cold water and a dash of salt, and as I turn on the burner I suddenly feel five again and can see the small mound of salt crystals in the center of Mother’s palm and the quick turn of her wrist.

This is my first Thanksgiving without Mother here.

Sometimes she would stop right in the middle of her cooking, turn the pot upside down for inspection and lay it on the edge of the sink. She sprinkled it with salt and baking soda, then squeezed a little lemon juice from the yellow plastic lemon. Her fingers made little scrubbing circles with a sudsy Brillo pad, her shoulders hunched, her face intent and her whole body pressing down as if she could cleanse the world of its sin. I hung around to watch the quick rinse under the faucet. She tilted the pan for me to see the copper as it gleamed. Satisfied, I’d head outside to swing.

She’s been gone five months now.

I watch and wait for the potatoes to boil, for the familiar starchy foam that gathers first around the edges, turning the water opaque as the potatoes dance. I carry the heavy pot to the sink. The kitchen window fogs from the hot air that rises as the potatoes hit the strainer. With a shake, I pour them back into the fruit bowl, and blend the soft squares with cream, salt, and butter. They give way with each press of the old masher, the red stripe of paint flaking on the handle.

I spoon the fluffy potatoes into the green flute-edged bowl then remember, this bowl was used for the Waldorf salad, not the potatoes. I’m too tired to find another bowl, so I take them to the table, already set with my mother’s grandmother’s crocheted tablecloth and tell myself, no one will notice. Besides, does anyone but me like apples, walnuts, mayonnaise and raisins anyway?

With a snap of the Tupperware lid, I place a dozen cold deviled eggs into the heavy divided egg plate. I see Mother’s hand take two, three, four, then another after a slice of both the pumpkin and pecan pie. Aromas of turkey and pole beans fill the air. I cut up bacon to flavor the beans and watch them simmer with crescents of translucent onion. Mother liked her vegetables tender—they tasted like mush to me; for Thanksgiving, I cook them a little longer.

I would stop and cry, but it would take too long, and the rolls would burn.

The buns, too hot to simply pick up, get shoved or tossed from the aluminum foil-covered cookie sheet into the silver bread warmer, the round one with penguins carved on the sides. I wonder, how many dinners of my childhood did I spend staring at those flightless birds?  Each year, my head slightly higher, I viewed life from a different perspective. I can’t find the top of the warmer, it probably got lost in the move, so I fold a napkin over the rolls to keep them warm.

I put out the turkey on its tray and set it in the middle of the table. I get out a pale yellow organza apron, stiff with starch. Mother must have ironed it some ten, maybe twenty years ago, and although it’s a bit musty and dinner is ready, I tie it around my waist. I remember the slam then the slide of the iron, and that sweet, hot steamy fragrance of starch on cotton. I used to watch Mother take the tip of the silver triangle and go around tiny buttons, pressing Daddy’s white Sunday collars. A strand of her hair slipped across her forehead as she warned me to step back. I brought my crayons and paper and drew at the old-fashioned school desk she put in the kitchen and that Daddy had painted gold. They loved gold. I liked hearing the phish sound the iron made after each burst of steam, as if exhausted from its labor.

I call everyone to the table and pull out a chair, the chair Mother sat in last Thanksgiving, and sit down.

I pour red wine into crystal goblets, given to Mother by her sister-in-law for a wedding gift some sixty-seven years ago. Mother never used them, but I’ve already broken one. We fill plates and my husband, our daughters and our guests all take hands, and we bow our heads in thanks.

I never knew I’d miss her so much.

***

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

Hold those you love dear–in your arms–and in memory.

Have a blessed and joy-filled Thanksgiving.

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I heard it on the news just this morning–another murder-suicide of an elderly couple. This same awful news happens in every community. Most of us assume that suicide and murder are “young people” crimes–that it’s our youth to blame. The truth is that the highest suicide rate in our country is for males over the age of 65,+ white males and the murder-suicide rates for elders are alarmingly high–and many of these deaths are due to the strains and stress of caregiving, depression, alcohol abuse, and isolation.

What are the signs of suicide?

  • Appearing depressed or sad most of the time.
    (Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.)  Talking or writing about death or suicide
  •  Withdrawing from family and friends
  •  Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling helpless
  •  Feeling strong anger or rage
  • Feeling trapped — like there is no way out of a situation
  • Experiencing dramatic mood changes
  •  Abusing drugs or alcohol
  •  Exhibiting a change in personality

What are the symptoms of murder-suicide among the elderly?

  • Prolonged illness which may also include pain
  • Medical financial issues
  • Being told you don’t have long to live
  • Depression
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • wrapping up details/talking about dying
  • Prolonged hospital stays and unresolved caregiving issues
  • A history of violence, jealousy, or clinical depression
  • A recent purchase of or interest in a handgun or hoarding of pills
  • Isolation

What can you do if you suspect the possibility of a murder-suicide?

  • Get the guns out of the house–every major study on violence has shown that guns make it too easy to take a life–a recent study showed that 34 out of 39 murder-suicides involved a gun.
  • Get the “victim” out of the house. If an attempt has been made, or you strongly suspect it might, don’t take a chance.
  • Take a hard look at your dad/the male. Elder suicides are almost always perpetrated by the male and they often struggle with severe depression and find that caring for their sick wife or being sick themselves makes life unbearable. Get them help–after you get the female/your mom/loved one out of the house.
  • Get them help–quick. Suicide is the culmination of feeling completely helpless, hopeless and alone. You’ve got to ease their burden–get them assistance–and most likely get them out of the house. The isolation and despair are just too much or a pull. They need to be with others, need outside assistance, and need to not be able to hide the depression and/or violence that are the hallmarks of murder-suicide.

If you suspect there’s a problem, there probably is. Listen to your gut. Do something fast.

Here are a few organizations who can help.

Suicide hotline: 1-800-suicide

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline and Treatment:  800-234-0420  800-234-0420

Elder Abuse Hotline:  800-252-8966  800-252-8966

Alzheimer’s Association Hotline: 800-621-0379

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle

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Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking with the Parkinson’s Foundation of Manitoba Canada. We’ll gather in Winnipeg and talk about what it’s like to be on this journey. Husbands, wives, those with Parkinson’s, sons and daughters–we’ll huddle in a room, learn a few things, introduce ourselves, and crack a few jokes.

Yes, that’s what I said. Jokes. Because one thing I know is that one weapon you need to fight the fatigue and frustration is to be able to make a joke out of anything, especially the things that bug us, confound us, and are generally considered off limits. And let’s face it–life is funnier when you have someone to share it with.

There will be close to 200 caregivers tomorrow gathered in one room–and it’s my “job” to give them hope, to give them a few minutes of feeling like they’re part of a tribe–they’re in the “in” crowd. Caregiving is cool because it’s a community of people who care, really care.

As an author and speaker it’s my job to point out the ridiculous, the hilarious, the over-the-top so insane moments that come with Parkinson’s. And as I watch these tired souls nod, chuckle, nudge each other, and smile…I feel like I did something meaningful with my own experience.

I’m so blessed to have had such a difficult mother! (Did that just come out of my mouth?) I’m so glad she was a pistol–because she taught me stand up for my self, and at times, to stand against her. Our difference made me define myself, and even the the hurts we inflicted on each other are now a part of our fabric–and they’re part of what I share and weave into my stories.

If I didn’t tell the truth, these caregivers would know. It would be like trying to lie to a front line sharpshooter about the realities of war. I’d be shot on the spot. I think they call this friendly fire.

I’ll share about our numerous mother-daughter fights. How she told me how to drive, how to cook, how to dress, how to make her bed. When she’d get really bossy I used to say that a small country was missing their dictator. We learned how to deal with the tremors, the pauses, the hiccups of “P.D.” as my mother called it–with humor, patience, and grace–depending on what was needed at the time. 

I’ll even go up to the edge of decorum and dangle my toes over–share how I thought of rigging up a large spotlight in the corner of the room so she could “go to the light.” And then I’ll take them where they’re afraid to go alone. We’ll  talk a little about their own lives, their own dreams-on-hold, and what it will be like later–after their loved one is no longer on this earth–how they’ll love and remember them and incorporate them into their being–and figure out who they are and where they are once again. 

And I’ll encourage them to look around–at their “peop’s.” This room is their tribe. There’s someone here they could email or call. There’s someone here who knows a thing or two about their particular current issue–and how we help each other at our points of need.

That’s the power of community. As isolating as caregiving is, it also makes us vulnerable–and that’s a good thing. We meet, come to gether only where our lives intersect.   

I know how tired you are. I know you don’t consider yourself good company.

But you need people–and they need you. You can start giving back now (what, you didn’t realize this was part of the bargain?) There are new caregivers every day. They’re your neighbors, your cousins, your friends, and they need your wisdom, advice, and your “here’s what not to do” list. When life presents you an opportunity (and it will), I hope your ears will perk up and you’ll remember this blog, and you’ll know it’s time.

Finding your tribe means you are willing to step into the circle.

~Carol O’Dell

Author, Mothering Mother

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If you are fortunate, you’ve had many conversations with your loved one.

If they’re your parent, your conversations probably started before you could speak. You heard their voice, their lyrical baby talk, their lullabyes sung in the dark of night as you were held tight.

Your conversations changed over the years–from childhood discipline, “Don’t ride your bike without your helmut,” to the pre-teen birds and bees mubo-jumbo they could barely get out, and your talks became more about schools, jobs, marriage, and kids of your own.

You’ve banked a lot of hours. Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Eighth Habit calls this making deposits into your emotional bank account. Every time we say an encouraging word, offer much needed advice, pass on a family story about crazy Aunt Jo adds to our collective memories.

Our family conversations are woven into who we are and the choices we make. This investment of time, talk, listening, encouraging, and even admonishing cement our love and commitment. And when we need something from this person–to speak wisdom into their life, to ask for care, attention, or respect–we can draw from that account. We’ve earned the “interest” so to speak.

And now you find yourself in the caregiving years. Whether this is with your spouse, your mother, father, or sister, all of those gathered conversations become even more precious when you come to the end of life. Even the medical profession is now recognizing the need to talk candidly to their patients about end of life and quality of life decisions.

At some point, you will have a final conversation.

You might not know it, and perhaps you shouldn’t. It’s not about saying just the right thing. It’s not about saying good bye even, it is and isn’t a culmination of all your talks–the baby talk, lullabies, warnings, corrections, arguments, growing pains, and reconciliations you’ve had over the years.

Technically, that last conversation may in a car, over the phone, or in a hospital bed, holding hands. It will, in years to come, be precious.

There are no guarantees. Our loved ones can walk out the door this minute, and we won’t have the privilege of knowing that death is on its way. Sometimes it’s quick, too soon, and all together unexpected.

For others, it may be the slow road of Alzheimer’s, or the painful road of cancer. We may find ourselves calling hospice, and making memorial plans as our loved one lingers.

So how do you say good bye? And should you?

Yes. If you know your loved one is dying, it’s important to have that last conversation. Those who work in hospice will tell you that this quiet moment is important to both of you.

What do I say?

Of course, it’s different for everyone, but many times our loved ones need us to to them:

It’s okay for them to go…that we love them and always will, but we’ll be fine.

We are the ones holding them to this life, and sadly, we may unintentionally be tying them to a life of pain and emptiness. Tell them it’s okay for them to go now Tell them not to worry. Assure them you will be okay.

It’s important to say I’m sorry–and I forgive you.

You may have said it a thousand times, or never have said it in your life. Do it. No one can have a relationship without some hurts and misunderstandings building up over time. This isn’t something you want to regret later, so say it, feel it, and let it go.

I’ve heard so many stories about how after saying these simple things–you can go now, I’m sorry, and forgive me–that their loved one passes away in peace. It’s also a interesting phenomenon that is observed in hospitals and hospice situations–a loved one hangs on, excruciatingly long, and then when their family leaves–for a meeting, or out of exhaustion and need for sleep–the loved passes away when they’re finally alone.

I can’t tell you how your last conversation should go.

Everyone has their own style, their own family’s culture and personality–some are wordy, others are witty, a few are formal and stoic…it doesn’t matter.

Be yourself, but be there.

Talk, or don’t talk (who says a conversation has to consist of words?)

Hold hands, hum a hymn, read from the Bible, or recite a poem or sing a lullaby, or sit silently.  If you feel like they still can’t let go, then consider stepping out. You’re not abandoning them. We can’t go with them, and for some, it has to be done alone.

Whatever winds up being your last conversation isn’t a mistake.

Nothing is a mistake.

Trust that the simple banter about feeding the cat or pick up the dry cleaning is just the talk you needed to have. You may look back and recognize that the words or look or touch you’re seeking occurred weeks or months before.

Be at peace and know that in many ways, your last conversation hasn’t happened yet.

You can continue to talk, journal, whisper and pray. Your story, your conversation, and your loved one goes on.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother, available in hardback or on Kindle

www.caroldodell.com

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