When a loved one has dementia, you lose so much. In fact, sometimes, it seems that every day, every encounter is just one loss after another.
Visits with mom are best when we are doing something: looking at photo albums, walking around the mall, working in the yard. Sitting around and making conversation doesn’t go so well anymore. So this morning we raked leaves. And in the midst of all the losses I feel when I’m with mom, I found much to be thankful for.
“We raked leaves” is not exactly true. I raked leaves; mom put the rake down and picked leaves up one at a time to place on the tarp. “Wouldn’t you rather use the rake?” I urged. Efficiency was my goal.
“Look at this one, how curvy it is!” Mom exclaimed, holding up an ordinary dry brown leaf. “I should keep this one, and this one too!” The other leaf she was holding was smaller and round. Her pleasure was tangible, her joy contagious!
Suddenly I was transported back to the days when I would rake the yard with my own preschool-aged children. There was delight in their work, constant discovery in their actions, simple joy in living. They would laugh and play as we raked, noticing things I was too busy to see. Those are such happy memories to recall!
Then mom spoke again. It was an irrational complaint about the neighbors, the neighbors she doesn’t even know. This is the dementia speaking, a script she repeats frequently, utterly ugrounded in fact but as real to her as the crunchy leaves under our feet. My emotions whiplashed from her sweet pleasure in the shape of the leaves to the horribly frustrating clutches of her disease.
Not wanting to deal with the present, I directed my thoughts back to the warm memories of raking with my young children nearly a decade ago. And that’s when I remembered: Raking with preschoolers wasn’t all together easy or fun. They would mess up the neat piles I made, wet their pants, cry when they pricked their finger. Raking leaves with preschoolers was a constant juggling act, a challenge. And yet those were precious days.
And so are these. This is our Thanksgiving. It’s not perfect, but it is precious. Mom won’t always be able to do yard work. In fact, I think she may be picking up the leaves by hand because the coordination of using a rake is nearly out of her grasp. There are frustrations and constant reminders of loss. But look, if I don’t let myself get overwhelmed by the sense of loss, I will see her joy in the present.
“Look mom, see how big this one is!” She thinks she will save that one for her collection too. It is a happy Thanksgiving after all.
Rev. Kendra Grimes Swager is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Chaplain and Director of Church Relations at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.