When he was in his early eighties, my father taught me about the possible depths of his love. I knew my parents had a fine relationship but I never realized how much my father adored my mother. There was little hint of his admiration and passion in their visible every day relationship. Only after my mother sank into Alzheimer’s did my grief-worn father reveal his immeasurable love. Oh, he didn’t talk about his feelings: he was, after all, a WWII veteran and a man raised to stoically endure for the sake of his family. But he showed me his devotion every day.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he might say to me, as we sat with mom in the nursing home’s private dining room, sharing a lunch I’d brought in: my parent’s favorite broccoli soup, half a tuna fish sandwich and a brownie.
The first time he said this, Mom wore a little fleck of mayonnaise-laden tuna on her cheek and a blob of greenish soup on her bib. Her hair was greasy—she’d been resistant to taking a bath. To me, she looked like an old crone from the fairy tales, the kind of dirty, mysterious witch who might whisper a cryptic piece of wisdom that would save your life, but who certainly wouldn’t win a beauty contest. I couldn’t yet see what my father saw.
“Your mother looks so pretty in that sweater,” my father said a couple of weeks later. We were strolling the corridors of the memory care unit. Mom was shuffling along, holding each of our arms, her head bent. My mother’s former wardrobe had gone the way of buttons and zippers and she now wore primarily sweats. I hadn’t really noticed her outfit but I stopped to look. Her pink sweatshirt echoed the blush of color in her cheeks. When she looked at me and smiled, she might have been wearing a rose chiffon evening gown: her face glowed.
“I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to make your mother smile,” my father said, when Mom was deep into the advanced stages. We were seated next to Mom’s bed, watching her twist her sheet. I scooted forward, eager for my father’s insights: my usual ways of making Mom smile were failing me and I felt bereft when she and I were unable to connect.
“Watch this,” he said and he leaned forward and gave Mom a series of light kisses on her cheek. She smiled, then she giggled, and her beauty shone so strongly that I fully understood what my father had always known: beauty is there if you’re looking with your heart.
“Caring for my mother is teaching me to let go of perfectionism and be in the flow,” a friend recently told me. Learning to occasionally surrender control and move with the flow has been one of the gifts caregiving brought me. Here’s a story I wrote about the art-form of surrender, an art-form I’m still working on.
Waving the White Flag
First, I lost the freelance job that would have supported me for the next two months. Then I discovered I needed outpatient surgery only minimally covered by my insurance. Next, a torrential downpour made archipelagos of my basement furniture. Instead of spending the evening creating a stunning new resume, I was duct taping trash sacks to the dribbling basement walls and sopping up the puddles with towels. I started upstairs to search for more trash sacks and tripped over a stray board, left over from the rascals who water proofed my basement! I picked up the board and was instantly stabbed with a splinter. Grabbing a sodden white towel to stem, I stomped up the stairs.
“I give up,” I said to the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. “I can’t take anymore,” I said to the pile of unopened bills cluttering the kitchen table. I shook the white towel and water flew across the counter tops. Then I remembered the old westerns, when the bullet-riddled good guys tie a handkerchief on a rifle butt and waved it at the enemy, just to get a moment’s respite.
It was time for me to officially throw in my towel.
I went outside and tied the towel to the board. I walked into the yard and waved my flag at the sky and said, “I surrender.” It was a good thing too, because I suddenly realized I was ankle deep in water. And I was wearing my good shoes.
I leaned the flag against the porch and dragged myself up to bed.
The next morning, the beat-up-looking flag made me smile. I felt better now that I had officially let go of control. Every time I came in and out of the house, I saw the flag. Despite that constant reminder, I still struggled. Sure, my basement dried up and yes, I got a new client. But I felt “on the edge” rather than brimming with abundance .
“Will you make a white flag for me for my birthday?” I asked my daughter Sarah.
As soon as I spoke those words, I worried: What if I don’t like the way the flag looks? What if it simply isn’t what I envisioned? What if it’s too large or too small? Then I had to laugh at myself: I wanted control over everything, even the shape of my surrender!
The morning of my birthday, Sarah put a long pole in my hands. It was spray painted gold, with an elegant carved top and held a beautifully proportioned, dazzling white flag. The flag was aesthetic, dramatic and elegant. Slowly I walked outside and hung the flag near my porch light, where it was fully visible yet sheltered from the rain. The flag tilted a little to the right. I climbed onto a chair to straighten it and by the time I climbed down, it tilted again. I tried again, perfect, and yet, the moment I stepped off the chair, the flag became askew.
Then I realized, the flag was already working, reminding me to flow with imperfection, to enjoy what was offered. I saluted my crooked flag and went inside to make a birthday wish.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. For a signed copy, contact Rainy Day books: 913-384-3126