Sparked by Words

The Empty Chair

 

What to do at the holidays when there’s an empty place at your table.

It was the opening statement in a letter offering coping advice when you’re grieving the absence of someone you love. A list of practical strategies meant to give relief to the ache of facing that empty chair and missing the person who’s supposed to sit in it. Who used to be there at all the holidays.

Thing was, I didn’t need the advice. Not this year at least – I needed it ten years ago when my dad died and left me with the responsibility of caring for my mom. When I found she was not in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but well enmeshed in the illness that was destroying her brain. When I had to have her declared mentally incompetent to make lucid decisions and remove her from her home for her safety. When I had to delve into her finances, her medical needs, her social obligations, and supervise every aspect of her life, all while hiding out in the guise of her little girl because she was – the Mom.

That first year after my dad died was the Year of No Celebrations. I missed every single holiday – federal, religious, personal, greeting-card-nonsense event. I got sick – pneumonia, bouts of cold, flu, bronchitis – as well as being the default contact for crises and emergencies. I slept with two phones next to me, frequently jolted awake by a call from the nurses at the residence where Mom lived. Every holiday was a calamity to endure, leaving not a flick of a second to celebrate. Leaving me tense and exhausted, afraid to see the dawn, fearful of the night. Nine years of dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s, but I am no hero. Millions of other family members live this way, trying to find a safe route through a maze with only one outcome for the ill person they love.

My mom died nine months ago, in an assisted living residence devoted to caring for people with progressive and unrecoverable memory lapses. After my dad’s death, I frequently took her to our home for the usual holidays, and she participated in the family gatherings. She read to her great-grandchildren, laughed at the stories and jokes, ate momentous amounts of food because that’s what we do at family gatherings. But the changes were obvious and painful to watch. She could answer questions, sometimes just to acknowledge that she couldn’t remember a detail, but she could no longer initiate conversation. She could react but not act.

Over those years, Mom’s memory fractured and fizzled as we knew it would. Bringing her to family celebrations at my home became more and more difficult. To discuss why would betray Mom’s privacy, and I’d vowed not to do that. Four or five years ago, the situation declined into impossible. I couldn’t watch her every second as she turned my house into tumultuous residue from her condition. She didn’t act with malice but with mindless energy. This is what Alzheimer’s does.

After dad’s death I felt like a battleship trying to barge through a pinhole. More accurately, a sob soaked wad of tissues attempting to dry up the desert. For the first three years, driving up and down the California freeways to the residence where Mom lived, to her attorney’s or accountant’s offices, to the mall to shop for her clothes, I cried and raged at the injustice of so much to do and no past experience from which I could draw. Every encounter was a new one, every crisis unpredictable, every visit with Mom another failure to communicate.

Friday evenings at our temple I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad, tears streaming. Synagogue was a safe place to cry – the other congregants understood. They surrounded me with their arms and their comfort. Kaddish is an ancient, exquisite prayer in the Jewish tradition. It’s recited while remembering those we’ve lost in the past year, but not one word has anything to do with death or human beings. It’s a prayer that extols God’s virtues and greatness, reminding us that after life, there is the World to Come.

Crying, screaming, driving, reciting Kaddish. This was how I spent my three years of grieving.

I didn’t have time to indulge in a grief support group though I participated erratically in an Alzheimer’s support group. Erratic not because the dissolution of keeping to a schedule is my nature but because it’s the nature of the disease to flummox every situation. Don’t plan ahead except for the advent of chaos, the world shaken like an abused child – and with the same ultimate effect of unimaginable damage.

Our table has been reduced these last ten months and the ten years previous. My parents are missing. But our home is surrounded by photos of those we love. It is saturated with their presence. My sorrow ebbs day by day, but capriciously – a reminder here of how my mom cooked spaghetti that was better than mine, there of how my dad spoke wisely about how to better parent my sons . The lacy blouse I nearly bought Mom a month after her death, the scent of a flower recalling the rose garden Dad lovingly tended. The dream when they stood by my side and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, all of us at peace, seeing future.

I won’t refer to the coping advice generously offered by the grief support group when my family celebrates the seventh night of Chanukah this coming Saturday. As I look at the chairs where my parents used to sit, I will not mourn the vacancy. Their places are filled with my memories of them and always will be.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Photo courtesy Bonin-Pratt family archives: Sharon at 3 with both of her parents. I apologize for its skewed format but can’t fix it – appropriate, considering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments on: "The Empty Chair" (25)

  1. A family in our church recently lost their 5-year-old son in a freakish bicycle accident. We were all gathered in grief for them and our pastor wisely told us what we shouldn’t and should say to the family. So often we want to say something meaningful and make a real hash of it.

    Last week my mother pointed to a stack of books she was getting rid of on grieving that people gave to her in the days after my father died. She never read any of them and didn’t want to. Instead after his death she tore the house apart, tore down walls my father thought would make the house collapse and finally called in a professional builder to do every little thing she ever wanted to do. She loved my father deeply but in a way she became a new person free of his fears.

    So good that you have a faith community that understands your need for tears when they come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adrienne, that’s a fascinating story about your mom, something that warrants deeper thought. People in long term relationships sometimes develop a personality of Couplehood that’s independent of who they are as individuals. We even refer to them as Henryandlucille, or Kathyandfred, one name merged out of two personalities as we can’t imagine them apart. Your mom likely found it cathartic to cope with her husband’s absence by reconstructing her surroundings. To me, her actions were healthier than folks who can’t overcome their grief.

      I think the only way to respond to a friend upon the death of someone they love is to think about the person still here. Speak from the heart and use few words, then be around when they need you. But that’s my opinion – I don’t know what your pastor suggested.

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  2. You discuss this topic so well, from your heart. I don’t know how you survive this sort of injury to a loved one. I’m wishing you a wonderful and fulfilling holiday, girlfriend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Sharon, I have never lost anyone to the cruel disease of Alzheimer disease but have seen enough glimpses to know a tiny bit of what you describe with such strength.

    I hope you will find calm now within yourself and let the positive memories of them make you smile. I have lost both my parents and coped / non-coped differently with both of them. Losing those you love will always leave “and empty chair” within.
    One coping way for me is to light two special candles at the table on their birthdays and on other celebrations. And tell beautiful stories and memories.

    We all find our way.
    Bless

    Miriam

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miriam, I love your candle commemoration for your parents – what a sweet idea. No doubt it brings you much comfort. Do you find the stories getting funnier as time goes on? I recently shared a hilarious story about my dad and it brought me much happiness to have remembered the incident.

      One of our Ashkenazic Jewish traditions is to name a baby after a family member who has recently died, so that person will be remembered through the next generation and their soul can watch over the infant. Thus, my youngest grandson was named after my dad.

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  4. After going to a high school where half the students were Jewish, I was taught that Chanukah was more or less a minor religious holiday. Still, it seems to be one that all the kids enjoy immensely. Still, because of the outside influence of everyone else celebrating Christmas, I truly understand your grief at this time of year. Please know I am thinking about you, Shari.

    As soon as you have your novel published, please let me know. I believe I need to read it. You see, I wasn’t close to home when my father went through Alzheimer’s. Part of the reason is I really didn’t want to be around my father, even without the Alzheimer’s. However, my brother went through it with him and reading your book would help me understand my brother’s tribulations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glynis, you’re right about Chanukah being a minor holiday. It isn’t one of the six festivals identified in Torah, as the historical event occurred hundreds of years later. But it’s taken on importance partly because Jewish kids get to have a fun holiday around the time that Christmas is being observed by their friends.

      Even though my mom died in March, I’m still learning about the disease and wish I’d had a better handle on what was happening to her when she was alive. It’s hard not to have regrets. I’ll certainly let you – and the rest of the world – know when my book gets published.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I understand the empty table as our table at Christmas is full of empty chairs. We have gone from a table of twelve or more down to three of us and Christmas now feels like a time for grieving. Not this year though as Roger’s family and my brother will all be with us. I don’t know whether you say Happy Chanukah but if it is appropriate the wishes are sent and I will send you love across the airwaves. Memories do sustain and as you hold them in your heart you have lost the physical presence but their spirit is retained.

    I will be reading your book when published Sharon. I might get some tips as I enter the world you entered ten years earlier and already I know it is not going to be easy. Already I am thinking I will have to move Mum to where there is more care available but she doesn’t want to go. There are so many hard calls to make and I know you made them well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It goes in cycles, doesn’t it? From a full house when we’re children to tiny tables when we’re first married and off making our own lives to tables with highchairs as our families grow to the full tables again as extended families and friends gather with us to the smaller tables as our grown children go off as we once did, and then the true emptiness as the older generation passes and their vacancy fills us with sorrow.

      Irene, my book is unlikely to be published soon enough to do you much good. Please contact me via Internet if you want to talk about your Mum – I’d be happy to share whatever I can that may help.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a lovely description of tables Sharon. The vacancy does fill us with sorrow.
        Thanks for your offer and I may well take you up on that as we go further down the track. At the moment it is trying to manage time so that everyone feels they have enough of my time.

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      • Several friends who’ve gone through similar situations have commented about how this article resonated with them. Some of them could barely get through the holiday, others are still struggling to come to terms with the situation. But everyone could relate.

        I’m here when you need me, Irene.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Sharon. Christmas in Australia is a sad time of year for many and suicides and attempts are high as people are reminded how sad their own lives are when it is supposed to be a time filled with family, friends and good cheer. Personally I would ban Christmas. The original purpose of the day has been lost to most and it seems to have become a highly commercialised event. Perhaps your Thanksgiving is the same for many in the United States as that is your family time and Christmas remains ? a religious holiday.

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      • In the US, there are so many interpretations of all holidays. Native Americans dislike Thanksgiving as they believe, rightly, that Europeans destroyed their culture and overran their country. Thanksgiving is not a day they celebrate. As for Christmas being religious – it depends on the people celebrating and what they bring to the holiday. I’m not Christian, so I sort of celebrate with friends, but always as a bit of an outsider. Certainly the business community just wants to sell stuff – they have to make a huge profit on Christmas purchases.

        I just read an article that pointed out that the holiday season is prime for suicides. So very sad that many people can’t cope. I wish all the holidays would tone down a bit.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m doing my bit to tone down, just need to make it into a movement.

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      • You know who you are and what your strengths are. Best wishes on your success, Irene

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Sharon, sending a sincere and loving hug of empathy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The memory of your raw grief seems tempered by the Kaddish (of which I know nothing), Shari. Now we make room for mom’s wheelchair on Christmas at brunch while listening to her Tourettes outbursts. She is transported over by a medical van so she can at least see us all together, but she forgets what day it is. I dont even know what to get her for Christmas this year that won’t be stolen or lost by the CNAs. We grimace a little with each outburst but I know a Christmas will come when it will not be there to hear. Its sobering just thinking about it. I hope your holidays are rich and meaningful with your family and that you cherish the memories of your parents’ wellness ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mourner’s Kaddish is one of the most deeply moving prayers in Jewish liturgy. We recite it for an entire year after the death of a parent, spouse, or a family member extremely close to us. Jews who can’t read Hebrew know this prayer by heart. It’s an outpouring of grief for those we mourn in the guise of great love of God. It’s not even written in Hebrew – it’s Aramaic, the common language spoken in one’s home when trying to get the kids to sleep or in the marketplace haggling over the price of fish. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic as did every Jew of that period. The language is so deeply ingrained in one’s sinew that no other language can adequately express sorrow and adulation and the belief in the survival of the soul. Terri, I hope I’ve been able to help you understand this prayer.

      Gifts for Mom – thefts of Mom’s things – been there. It’s one of the many problems you face when a loved one must live in a residential community. I dislike laws passed because of someone’s personal experience and yet I know how little oversight exists in these “old age”‘ homes. There are not enough laws to protect this most fragile population.

      I had to stop bringing my mom to our house for special occasions and it pierced my heart each holiday. I don’t have a solution for you. Nothing assuages your guilt if you don’t include her, and nothing hollows you like the mess they can make of what is supposed to be a celebration, reduced to mayhem. My heart goes out to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. this is wonderfully written – can’t wait to read the whole book. as for content, the year end holidays are indeed so filled with cheer as well as melancholy – ‘for old acquaintances…,’ wishes…

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