A Happy Chappy for my mom

Happy Chappy

My mother began showing signs of dementia when my second child was eight months old. She was visiting from the Seattle area, and I remember she kept asking me, “How old is Sierra now?” The third or fourth time she asked me this within a few hours, I began to wonder what was going on. When I mentioned it to one of my sisters, she didn’t seem concerned; she hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Mom returned home, and it wasn’t until a few months later that others in my family started noticing. One brother or sister at a time started asking, “What’s with Mom?” Eventually we all knew what was going on, but since her illness progressed at a very slow pace it took my father a long time to admit that Mom’s problem was serious. Her journey through Alzheimers lasted longer than many people’s; it was about 15 years before she was moved into a Memory Care facility, and another three years before she had the stroke that led to her death a couple months later.

Losing Mom was a slow and painful journey for all of us seven grown children, and particularly so for our father. Each of us experienced it in our own way, loving her so much and being powerless as we watched her disappear, bit by bit. For me, there were many many times over the years when I so needed my Mom, and yet I knew that she wasn’t able to be that for me. The loss was incremental, hard to put my finger on, and very very sad.

There was one bright spot: In her own unassuming way, Mom had always been a positive, cheerful, smiling person, and in Alzheimers, she was even more so. Toward the end, when she could no longer remember who we were, or other details of reality, it wasn’t uncommon for her to literally dance through the halls of the Memory Care Center, visiting with the other residents, as if blessing them with her sunny presence. She developed an amazing lightness and conduced herself with a remarkable sense of confidence. She knew how sweet and special she was, and was more than happy to share herself with others. She brought many a smile and warm heart to the staff who cared for her. I think about some of the other patients, who struggled with paranoia and confusion, and am so grateful that Mom’s journey at least didn’t go that route.

At one point, when Mom was still at home with Dad, I felt that she needed to be wearing an ID bracelet. I had heard of dementia patients wandering and getting lost, so I ordered one through Walgreens, and had it sent to Mom and Dad’s address. My Dad was still struggling with accepting the fact of Mom’s illness, and I don’t think we talked much about the bracelet, but I do know that he put it on her wrist and she wore it for the rest of her life.

After her death, I asked if I could have the bracelet. My Dad was glad to be rid of it, I think, and gave it to me with relief. Back at home, in Santa Fe, I went to a local nursery and bought the cutest, cheeriest little rose plant I had ever seen – a “Happy Chappy.” I planted the bush with Mom’s bracelet around the center cane. I also scattered a few of her ashes there. A few months later, when I happened to mention it to one of my sisters, she exclaimed that she also has a Happy Chappy and that it’s one of her favorite plants. Every year, when my  Happy Chappy blooms, I think of Mom and her bright disposition (and my sister, and hers). I dig through the mulch and dead leaves and find the bracelet, still there, and remember my sweet Mom.

Happy Chappy is in full bloom right now. You can see one of the flowers above.


A Natural Response

I’ve come to see grief – and all the messy and painful feelings that come with it – as such a natural response to loss. Most losses are unasked-for and unwanted. The initial reaction is usually “No! Turn back the clock – make it go away!” Yet there’s no denying that loss is going to happen. It’s an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Actually, the very fact that I care deeply about things (or people, or situations, or dreams) sets me up for the possibility of loss. There is a direct relationship between how much I love (or care) and how much I stand to lose. What courage it takes to love, then!

I used to think that in a perfect world, you could love and never lose, but it doesn’t happen that way, and I’m not sure it would be more perfect if it did. You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Well, it turns out it’s true. Yes, my gut reaction to loss is going to involve throwing my hands up and trying desperately to stop it with that huge No! – thinking “I can’t handle it!” But the great thing is, I can. I can handle it. And the handling of it connects me to my humanity, my willingness to have loved.

What I can’t do is to be the same afterwards. When I lose someone or something I have really cared about, it changes me – plain and simple. That’s one of the beauties of our ever-changing and evolving lives. The great thing is that I get to make choices as I respond to my loss, as I go through my grief. To the degree that I choose to go through it (not avoiding it by trying to find a way around, over, or under) I can be changed for the better. My life can open up; my capacity to feel and care – even in the face of more loss – can grow, as I experience the value of saying yes to it.

Don’t get me wrong – knowing and even accepting that I have to go through loss doesn’t necessarily make it a whole lot easier. But it can help me stay on track. Most of us don’t say yes to loss or grief in the beginning, and I don’t advocate trying to do this. A natural part of grief is denial; paradoxically, accepting the very fact that I may go in and out of denial is accepting, is going through. This grief is often messy and almost always non-linear. I’m likely to kick and scream at some point, or maybe many points. And still, the very notion of going through can be the boat that keeps me afloat through all kinds of waves and weather.

There’s a line that I love in a lyric by singer-songwriter Kirtana, in Deathbed Song: “…I know that love is worth the wounding…” (http://www.kirtana.com/content/deathbed-song)

In my experience, it is. Loving is worth the wounding. And we can go through.

Blessings through the waves and weather.