Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where do I start

It's hard to know what to say. What my family is dealing with is so fiercely personal, it seems like a violation to write anything down. But at the same time, I'm desperate for feedback, to know I'm not alone, to hear from other people who are dealing with something similar or at least can share a burden of pain with me. I'm giving this format a try: an anonymous, public forum. Seems counter intuitive, but whatever.

I don't feel like I can write about what my Mom is going through right now until I bring you up to speed on who this woman is besides the Alzheimer's. Like an author, I want you to know the main character of the story and value her and all her uniqueness before the plot thickens. I want you to be invested in this story, to give you a taste of just how hard it is that all the things I love about my Mom have been stripped away. Okay, not all. I can't say that. I love her because she's my Mom, but her identity is definitely wrapped up for me in actions and behaviors. Slowly, those descriptions no longer apply.

She was born in 1953, to 33 year old parents, a salesman and a bank teller, and a 5 year old brother. She lived in WA state her whole life, attended school here, and grew up in a cocoon of love and support. My grandparents were very conservative people and Mom was sheltered from most of the cultural and social changes of the 1960s and early 70s (unlike my Dad, who describes himself as a "wannabe hippie"). As a young adult, she taught Sunday School, played the viola, traveled to France on an evangelistic trip with her church, and wrote poetry. She lived at home with my grandparents, studied education in college and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and a high school teaching certificate. I hate to say it, but Mom's stories about her childhood are boring. As kids, my brothers and sister and I would ask her to tell us what she remembered "when she was a little girl." She sewed clothes for her dolls, collected anything to do with horses, and stayed out of trouble. Compared to Dad's stories of childhood mischief, teenage drug use, and wayward tales of barely making it to his twentieth birthday in one piece, Mom's stories weren't as dramatic and we would lose interest. I picture her childhood to be a lot like my own, but less exciting.

One of my favorite stories of all time is my parents' courtship. My Dad did an unusual and chivalrous thing by asking Grandpa's permission to date Mom. Grandpa said, "Sure. But don't even think about marrying her." This threw Dad for a loop. He was trying to take things slow in deference to my traditional and religious grandparents. At 22 years old, Dad had recently joined my grandparents church and noticed Mom right away. He thought he had already made significant progress toward adulthood but Grandpa said, "You have a lot of things to work on; you won't be ready to marry anyone for at least five years."

Surprisingly, this didn't scare Dad off. He and Mom dated for several years, while Dad worked on that long list from Grandpa (get a job, get a car, get a haircut, etc.) Grandpa gave his blessing after only three years since Dad demonstrated such good progress, and my parents got married in the fall of 1977. The pictures show an awfully happy couple and lots of smiling family and friends. It was a simple event: my great uncle took photos, Grandma baked the cake, Mom sewed her own dress, the groomsmen wore their best suits instead of tuxes, and members of the church decorated the fellowship hall.

I was born four years later, followed by four siblings in the next 10 and a half years. Mom stayed home with us kids while Dad went to seminary and pastored a small church. Since Dad had endured a terrible 12 years of public education, graduating in the third percentile of his high school, while Mom excelled in academics and had training as a teacher, they decided to home school all five of us. I still remember the first day of school when I was 5. Mom said, "We're going to have a visitor today!" I got really excited and wondered who would come to our house. I was disappointed when I learned the visitor was "Mr. A," and the introduction wasn't to someone who would play with me, but the alphabet.

My parents played the primary adult roles of my childhood, establishing connection with me as an infant, meeting basic needs and reassuring me that I was loved and protected. They also taught me my place in the world as part of a family. They demonstrated and required respect for others, appropriate public behavior, kindness toward animals, stewardship of Earth. They also taught me the practical knowledge I use daily: language, writing, and mathematics. It's hard for me to separate what lessons from my parents (Mom in particular) were academic and which were social or moral. I feel very fortunate to have been raised and educated by such emotionally in-tune, intelligent, creative people.

I put both Mom and Dad on pedestals of respect. That elevated position has been rattled and challenged more often, the older I get. As an adult myself, I recognize weaknesses of my parents and can see where their best efforts were misguided. But a safe place for me has always been the role of obedient daughter. I think the separation of moving out of my family's home and discovering my own identity, and now being married and re-aligning myself to form a new family unit has been especially hard for me. On top of that, the loss of my mom has been that much more painful. If grief can be quantified, I feel like I've been dealt a double blow: I've lost my mother and my favorite teacher. It feels like twice the loss. On the other hand, I think I'm pretty well equipped with patience and grace and affection for my mom precisely because she taught me each of those traits.

1 comment:

  1. Emily--

    I stumbled on your blog by accident, but I hope you continue to post. I'm sure your personal story will help many people who are dealing with this terrible disease.