The Year I Aged Ten Years


Most of this story happened in 2013. What followed in 2014 is a different story.

There was a day I remember helping my mom. She was ill, I think, though she couldn’t tell me about it because she had lost her ability to speak from dementia.

As she slept in bed, her nose was bleeding. You likely haven’t seen an infirm person in bed with a nosebleed, so I’ll just tell you: it looks like a crime scene. I tried to help her out of bed, but she is bigger than me, and she was frail, so we sat there with me sort-of propping her up, and both of us surrounded by a variety of body fluids.

We sat together for twenty minutes like that, and as I wiped her face and kissed her forehead, I felt our roles change. I took the role of the parent, and she became like the dependent child. She needed help like a three-year-old child, and I could do that. I already had two children, and I was good at taking care of them. I could wipe faces and do laundry, I do that every day. I let go of my role as a daughter.

It was better, actually, to feel that shift toward taking care of my mom. I had helplessly watched her go through a dozen years of debilitating loss. My sadness felt secondary to her first-hand experience, and feeling like I couldn’t talk about the loss of a person who was technically still here and needing care, I swallowed my grief and sank into dark depression. I thought I had experienced a splinter compared to someone who had lost an arm. I developed a fine collection of coping methods, but caring for her was something helpful I could do.

Dementia is the experience of hundreds of losses, in slow motion, with no relief in sight. My mom couldn’t speak, drive, or play with her grandchildren. She couldn’t control her facial muscles to make a smile, and that saddened her because of how it affected other people.

At home she could no longer be by herself. She walked around wearing only one shoe. She wanted to take walks outside in 100-degree weather wearing winter clothes. She walked constantly in laps around the house.

I got an ID bracelet for her to wear since she was prone to leaving the house to go walking by herself. Three days later I received a phone call from a stranger who helped her and saw my phone number on her bracelet. My mom had fallen on the street and needed emergency care. Without the bracelet, she would have been Jane Doe in the hospital. I couldn’t leave my phone after that; I carried it constantly.

The kitchen was safety-proofed, and the refrigerator door locked because she would get drinks, not remembering that she had finished her drink five minutes before. She ate without discernment things that were not food: a grape stem, a corn cob, pieces of paper, even the kitchen sponge. I hid the push pins.

Without concern for safety, she tried to exit a moving vehicle. She called 911 twice in a week for no reason—the police showed up both times. She pushed the alarm at the memory care center where she visited a few days each week.

She didn’t like it at the memory care center; she thought it was boring, and she wanted to be at home. My dad asked what she thought she would do at home, and she replied, “laundry.” To her, doing the laundry meant stopping and starting the laundry cycle over again by pushing the buttons. It took all day to complete a load of clothes, unless I guarded the washing machine.

Caring for her was different than caring for a child, certainly. It was a remedy and a privilege for me. The intimacy of caring for a dependent adult felt like a sacred place. It was hard, though, and I did work that I didn’t think I was strong enough to do.

I was glad when my dad decided to move her into the memory care center full-time. He had always been my mom’s primary caregiver and carried the majority of the work. I wasn’t worried about her, I knew she would be fine; I was worried about my dad. I felt relieved. He felt devastated.

Ironing the name labels onto her clothes seemed like sending my kid to camp. She had a nice room with a new bedspread. The workers were friendly and supportive.

A few weeks after she moved to the care center, I was trying to get my life back to normal, but I couldn’t because everything changed.

I was diagnosed with cancer in March 2014. It started in the breast and spread to several places in my body, attached to my bones. I was 36 years old, and my children were 7 and 4. When the doctor told me the news, I thought of my mom and said, “Well, I’ve seen worse.” I didn’t cry. I was so tired of being sad.

I didn’t tell my mom I had cancer. I didn’t know if she could understand, and I imagined her turning away to go for a walk. I knew she wouldn’t be able to respond in the way I wanted. I wanted her to help take care of my kids and cook for me during chemo. She would have helped me, if she could.

Although she couldn’t help me, I realized she gave me something greater: she showed me how to go through something hard by her example.

(More details about my cancer treatment will follow.)

These are the quilts

the quilt

I counted 16 clocks in my parents’ house, but only a handful of them showed the correct time. One was 40 minutes fast, another was 20 minutes behind. It was too confusing, so I check my iPhone and set all the clocks to the same time.

It’s been ten years since my mom first started to show signs of dementia. Now she requires constant care. There are other signs of it around the house. The sign on the back door reminding her to close the door. The “please don’t call 911″ note by the phone after she called a couple times with no reason.

My mom wants to show me something in the guest room. It was my room as a teenager, but after I moved out, my mother repainted it in a safe neutral shade of misty taupe.

She motions for me to look in the bedroom with her, but once there, she can’t remember why. She stands there and looks around, then abruptly turns around and leaves. She repeats this a few more times.

Later in the morning I help her sit down to eat the popcorn snack I made for her. While she eats I clean out the pantry shelves since it’s been a long time since someone was able to do that job.

She gets up by herself and goes to look again in the guest bedroom. This time she remembers. Unable to speak (she lost her ability to speak a few years ago) she struggles to type me a message on the iPad. “These are.” But it doesn’t look right to her, so she tries again.

“These are.” Backspace. Backspace.

I sit down and lean my head back in the rocking chair and wait for her to finish.

“These are the quilts.” Finally she is able to finish it: “These are the quilts my grandmother made.” And she motions for me to have one.

the quilt detail

I pull the quilts out from under the bed and untie the strips of muslin. I find one that I last looked at twenty-five years ago with small squares of vintage fabric in a double wedding ring pattern and perfectly even stitches on a blue background. I love it. In a different season, this would be a touching moment, but right now I don’t have the emotions left to spend.

My dad provides most of my mom’s care, and when he gets back from work I get ready to leave for my hour-long drive home. The special quilt comes home with me, rolled up and placed in the front passenger seat. My youngest child sleeps in his car seat. Next to him my oldest child is telling me why Alvin and the Chipmunks is such a funny show, and it has to do with how the man is always yelling “Alviiiin!”

I don’t know what I will do with this quilt, but for now I set it aside until I can do something with it later.

That’s what I’ve been doing with this blog, this treasured belonging of mine, trusting that it would be there later while I coped with life changes. I have half-written posts that I couldn’t finish but couldn’t explain why. I will try again, because I love this blog and it is mine. And I’m amazed that even though my life looks very different,  the theme of this blog always remains the same: making a home in a temporary place.

Coming Soon: New Podcast


One thing we’ve been working on behind the scenes (besides the painting and building) is our new podcast! I’ll be joining with my husband Doug to record short podcasts on the topic of money and to answer the money questions that people ask us frequently.

I’ll be talking about ways to save and spend money wisely. Doug is an investment manager, so he’ll be tackling the questions such as how much money people should really be saving, planning for both long-term and short-term goals, and the investments he thinks people should avoid.

And most fun for me, since we’re married, we’ll get to talk about how we work out our different approaches to money, how we avoid debt, and reconciling our past histories about spending money.

We definitely have a long list of topics to cover. If you have a topic in mind that you want to submit, you can leave a comment in this post or shoot us an email. I think this will be lots of fun.