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Open Me First

The holiday dilemma: what do you get for the person who has everything?

Perhaps something goofy like slippers that sing Rock Around the Clock, or something extravagant like a set of diamond encrusted napkins rings, the kind of thing that becomes an expensive party joke. Maybe a bauble like a garden statue of lighted snowmen or a set of holiday themed coffee mugs, useless most of the year because, well, they’re holiday themed and who wants to drink coffee in July with Rudolph’s red nose stenciled on it? We can get truly original: a dozen bottles of wine with personalized labels, Humphrey Malarkey Family Reserve Chardonnay, so it looks like Uncle Humph became a boutique vintner on Christmas Eve.  Another possibility is the very exclusive Himalayan Cilantro Sea Salt Spa Scrub with Acai Crystals – imagine how much fun Great Aunt Agnes will have trying to figure out if she should eat the stuff or bathe in it.

My favorite is the two-pound box of Belgian dark chocolate covered bacon bits because dark chocolate is so good for you and bacon bits are not very good for you but, hey, they’re bacon bits – you get it, right? These are the kinds of gifts we consider when we must give something to a person who can afford to buy a new car for each of their nephews and nieces and then pay all the speeding tickets they rack up. Because people who have everything have, well, everything, and anything we might buy is nothing they need and that’s the whole point.

So now we come to the other side of the gift list, the folks who have nothing and need it all. You know what to do about gifting the less fortunate – write a check and deposit it at your favorite charity. Someone is always in genuine need and your check will do wonders for those lacking anything wonderful in their lives.

But what about gifts for another group that’s nearly impossible to choose something for? What about mom or dad or husband or wife who has Alzheimer’s – what do you get people with fragile health and declining mental faculties? At the memory care residence where my mom lives, I notice the usual solutions: a bouquet of roses or potted bamboo twig for their rooms; a warm scarf or some funny socks; a box of shortbread cookies or a bag of gourmet pretzels; cologne or hand lotion; a costume bracelet or sweater vest. All of them are useful and will be appreciated to a degree, but none will fulfill the most desired wishes of the person who is ill. What they really want, and what you really want to give, is restored health. But you can’t.

Here then is the solution to both giftee dilemmas: The very best present you can give is yourself. To someone richer than Midas or ill with an incurable disease, following are the presents they will all love.

Spend time with them. Commit to an extra hour at each visit, an extra day each month. Worth about a million bucks and comes with bragging rights. My daughter-husband-son-wife is here with me because they love me. No dazzling outfits required, no ticket reservations, just sitting next to your loved one in comfy sweats is fine.

Do an activity you can share. Work an easy crossword puzzle or play Bingo or watch an old movie or take a twenty minute walk in the garden or frost sugar cookies or sing the songs they love or make snowman decorations out of cotton balls with them. It’s the with them part that’s the gift and it’s free.

Make a memory bank. Put together a photo album or collage with name tags to identify their family and closest friends. Listen to their delighted comments as they turn the pages or point at pictures. This is so much richer than a traditional financial investment, and the dividends can be spent over and over without ever depleting the assets.

Take them for a safe and simple outing. A half hour drive through the woods or along the lakefront or by the seashore or around a neighborhood where the houses are festooned with holiday lights is a wonderful change of pace. Point out the ordinary and extraordinary with equal delight because they’ll see everything with equal delight.

Be old school. Send a snail mail letter. I’ve watched folks open cards and letters, running fingers over the words, putting them back in the envelopes and pulling them out again,  over and over and over, grinning the whole time. Even if you can’t be there, even if you can, even if they can no longer read, send a card with a pretty image or a letter with a photograph. Write the word love, sign your name. The best stamp you’ll ever stick.

Share the stories of their youth. Remind them of when they were young and if they can, encourage them to tell you more than you knew before, even if the stories they tell are tall tales. Special events like weddings, births of babies, career advancement, and vacations generate hundreds of topics to discuss. It doesn’t matter if they call their husband their father, their sister their best friend, or you by your hated birth certificate name, or if they get dates and places mixed up. You don’t need to correct errors (who cares?) but you can add your own comments as you build moments in the present with remembrances of the past.

Neither very rich nor very ill folks need more stuff to fill closets. They need stuff to fill their hearts. Yours will fill as well. It’s the Open Me First present and it’s the absolute best. And wait till you see those smiles as they enjoy their favorite gifts of the season.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s 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 sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Gift box image courtesy Pixabay.com

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Whisper Me Full

 

It’s wonderful to clean out possessions piled throughout the house. Tchotchke collections, incomplete china sets, discarded toys, forgotten chairs, clothing for another climate, artwork better suited to other walls, too many mugs and candles, games not played in twenty years, purses I’ll never carry again, unopened gifts, things I had to have but never used.  Everything given away.

The house now filled with empty space, I hear their memories whisper stories to me. Remember when. And so I do.

 

Just a Thought 20

 

 

 

Image of torn paper collection courtesy Pixabay.com

 

 

To Grandmother’s House We Go

We’re trying to get to Grandmother’s House. We’re trying to take her home, even though she’s lost.

Those of us who love and care for our family members who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease know that when they say they want to go home, it’s unlikely to be the last place they lived. Because they probably can no longer remember that more recent place, and taking them there may instigate even more despair for everyone. Grasping their desires is a moon shot from making them content. They want to go back to when they were seven and felt safe with their parents; to when they were sixteen and flirting with independence; to when they were twenty-four and exploring young adulthood; to when they were thirty-two and involved with marriage, children, and mortgages; to when they were fifty-eight and celebrating the birth of a first grandchild, a  child’s marriage, another’s college graduation; to when they were sixty-four and enduring their final career years; to when they were seventy-eight and Alzheimer’s knocked down all the retirement ideas they ever thought possible. All of their life collapsed like a block tower that can’t be rebuilt.

The holiday season arrives wrought with expectations and memories that tangle our celebrations by not meeting our high hopes. No matter how much we declare not wanting presents, parties to attend, and over-the-top fashions, if we’re caring for someone who is ill, we’re likely to have our plans changed, our hopes derailed, and at least one event cut short by a crisis. Tears, anger, aggression, bathroom accidents, bathroom refusals, eating problems, repetitive motions and comments, sleepiness, anxiety, total confusion – they all show up like a beggar at our feet. It isn’t Grandmother’s fault. It can’t be, because someone ill with Alzheimer’s is no longer in charge. The disease is in charge – peculiar and heavy handed, blistering with fever and glittering with promises that can’t be kept. I hate you, they say, I love you. You must not love me or you wouldn’t leave me here. I want to go home. And we, the accused, we cringe and cry and dig our nails into our hearts. We have to leave you here at this assisted living residence because we no longer have the strength or skills to care for you “at home.” Their home, our home, someplace other than the residence where they reside – we can’t.

My friends and I discuss whether or not we’re bringing mom (or dad or our spouse) home for the Christmas Day gift exchange or lighting the Chanukah menorah. If we’ll instead replicate the event at the residence where they are cared for by professionals, then abide the guilt of the empty place at the table, the missing voice of the blessings. Can we enjoy the home celebration when they aren’t there, the absence painfully obvious but so much more sane because they aren’t? Will the rest of the family blame us for their inclusion or exclusion? Will extended family support our decision, knowing we’re crying either way?

We do what we can to reconstruct the holidays and celebrations of the times when we were younger and our loved ones were healthy. Some create second weddings so dad can be present because he couldn’t attend his daughter’s nuptials in Arizona. Others arrange for a caregiver to bring grandma to three hours on Christmas morning so she can see her great-grandchildren unwrap gifts. I’m facilitating a Chanukah dessert party at the place where my mom lives, for her, the other Jewish residents, and anyone who wants to stop by for a cookie.

We put together albums with name tags on the photos so our loved ones whose minds are drifting in and out of reality can identify their spouses, their kids, their closest friends. We collect mementos for the shelf in their room, things they can hold and turn in their hands – the carved shell from the anniversary trip to Hawaii, the bronze award for signing the most contracts twenty years ago, the lifetime membership pin for the service organization to which they’d devoted so many years of altruistic fervor.  We coax them to recall names even when they forget them ten seconds later. Even when they are our names. Even when it’s hopeless.

These are the waning years when their moon has left its natural orbit and traverses an alternate route through space. We try to fill their mutilated minds with lifelines and safety nets and touchstones, hoping for memories to be lastingly imprinted. But it is only on our memories they’ll survive, and we wearily know that too, the failures of all our efforts. My mom’s brain will continue to retract, to default to a younger and younger self as she seeks familiarity.

And I’ll find solace in my memories of the occasions when we all gathered to light candles and say blessings for the wealth of our lives. When Mom was well a very long time ago, when my dad was with us. We take our ill loved ones to Grandmother’s House wherever it might be, and there we wait, praying for a few moments of shared joy and the flicker of recognition that makes all the work worthwhile. See you at home, Mom, see you at home.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel about the devastation Alzheimer’s forces 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 sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

This Season

 

A time to notice the stranger and a time to acknowledge our neighbor

A time to bridle words for desire and a time to examine language for equity

A time to destroy that which is scornful and a time to create beauty

A time to excise the profane and a time to honor the sacred

A time to expose corruption and a time to aspire to holiness

A time to look in the mirror and weep and a time to look at others and see

A time to distinguish one from the other and a time to know our own faults

 

There is a season

And the season is always

 

 

Just a thought 19

 

 

 

Painting The Magpie by Claude Monet, courtesy en.wikipedia.org

 

Balm

 

Balm is not love nor even understanding. Love is an act in which we choose to engage. Understanding is the obligation of being human. Balm is inclusion. Inclusion is the soothing peace from which we all benefit, one hand extended to another, all hands linked, around the world, around the world and back again.

Around the world into the future.

 

 

Just a thought 18

 

 

 

Painting detail, Hands of God and Adam from Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

 

Harvest

May you find your life as abundant as the stars in heaven, may you share your wealth with others, may others invite you into their embrace, and may all of us reap the bounty of a plentiful harvest of health, hope, happiness, and hearth.

 

Just a thought 17

 

Image courtesy Pixabay.com

 

Thanksgiving 2017

We live in the eucalyptus woods of Lake Forest in Orange County, California, solidly middle class and a place we could not afford at today’s prices. We locked in to this gracious neighborhood of family focus, great schools, varied public and private services, and healthy businesses more than 30 years ago. This past two months we cleaned the house, packed up anything worth donating, threw out barrels of useless stuff that we wondered why we’d saved. We fixed and painted, scrubbed and polished. Organized in its new beauty, showing off its books, photos, and knickknacks, the house glows. We’re ready for the holidays, for our out of town guests. This will be the first in about 15 years that both our sons and their families will be together for Thanksgiving along with extended family and friends. The bright and shining face of comfort, we’re ready to celebrate our bounty.

Nearly 200 homeless people, many of them family groups, live around the Plaza of the Flags in downtown Santa Ana, our county seat. The area bridges the Orange County Superior Court building and the public law library. Nearby is the main branch of the distinguished Santa Ana Public Library and Santa Ana City Hall. None of the campers really want to live here but they can’t afford the high county rent. The encampment is an embarrassment, a haven for filth and disease, used syringes and empty bottles and cans. For discarded and broken toys, torn sweatshirts and trash. For vermin. For excrement. It’s a dirty, scary place to walk past as I did last year on my way to serve jury duty. It’s a failure of individual responsibility and self control, of inability to delay gratification or accept consequences, of unwillingness to apply oneself to education and work ethic. It’s a total failure of parenting skills. And it’s  not the image of public pride we’d like to project but the face of policy failure we can’t seem to resolve.

Some but not all of the adults work for low paying wages at jobs with inconsistent schedules. And yes, some are drug addicts, alcoholics, lowlifes and criminals – but not the children. The children are innocent and active, yearning for play, hoping for education. Like our four grandchildren. Like yours. Orange County officials are trying to clean up the encampment but if they deal with this problem by forcing these people out with no place else to go, then they simply foist the problem onto some other community. Resolution is not barricading Civic Center. It’s building temporary safe houses and long term opportunity. It’s people remembering their childhood goals and deciding to change themselves.

My family is eating lots of healthy food over this week of Thanksgiving. Everything traditional you can think of (most homemade by our many family cooks and bakers,) also sushi, pizza, and a variety of ethnic foods (most from local restaurants.) We love it all and we pick at the leftovers whenever we want a snack. Every year as part of my temple’s outreach program we collect hundreds of cans and boxes of food items to donate, along with grocery gift certificates, to help 200 low income families. Thanksgiving is one of about a dozen times during the year that we mount a formal collection – school supplies in September, clothing, books, eyeglasses, personal hygiene items, toys. Throughout the year we donate food and more food, because a meal eaten today doesn’t feed a person tomorrow. We write checks to service organizations whose mission is to help those who are ill, hungry, without homes. These low income people don’t live a few counties over. They live here in Orange County. They’re my neighbors. And yours.

We aren’t rich. We do without vacations, expensive hair care, manicures, gardeners, maid service, updates on the house, sometimes even without needed repairs. Remodeling our house is a daydream. Tickets to live theater or sporting events are out of the question. Until two months ago I drove a nineteen-year-old car but when it became dangerous, we purchased a newer used one. I don’t have to get around on a bicycle or on public transportation, and if I walk, it’s to enhance my health, not because there’s no other way. We do without luxuries, things by their definition no one needs. Our personal situation was built of hard work and bonuses of good luck. We have everything necessary for a decent life. We are rich in family, friends, and opportunities.

On Thursday when we sit with our two sons and two daughters-in-law, with our four grandchildren, and our extended family around a table graced with candles and goblets, we will say thanks for this bounty. But I will remember those whose lives are less secure, whose meal was cooked over a camp stove or eaten from greasy paper sheets while they hunkered on a cement slab in Civic Center. The crime is not that I can’t fix the problem. It’s  a crime if I don’t recognize their humanity, if I call them “other,” “other” being a designation of less worth. Yesterday I donated food. Today I wrote a check. Tomorrow I will give clothing. Next month I will donate toys. What we have is not extravagant. What we have is immensely extravagant bounty. I am deeply grateful.

May you always celebrate in joy and health with your family and loved ones. One day may everyone.

 

 

 

 

Image of homeless girl courtesy of Pixabay.com