Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Free At Last, Free At Last . . .

"Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." Isaiah 9:2

Anne Iversen 1919-2007

My mother left this earth on May 30th of this year. She went to a place where there is nothing to be anxious about. It is a place where there will be no more tears, no more sickness and no more dying. The prison doors of fear and confusion have burst open and she has flown home to a place that has been prepared for her. She is no longer broken and alone. She has been made whole again because she stands triumphantly in the presence of God. All her questions have finally been answered and her struggle is through. She has won the race and she is at peace.

It was ten years ago that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It ate away at her mind and body like a slow rust and has truly been termed, "The Long Goodbye." It is an insidious and cruel disease that takes tiny bites out of your mind each and every day. In the later stages, she was almost unrecognizable. My mother was gone but her body was still here. In 2000, I started to take care of my parents full-time. My father also has dementia as well as Parkinson's disease.

They were married for about 66 years. My father first met her at a rollerskating rink on route 30 (Lincoln Highway) in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The same route 30 runs near our house in Oswego, Illinois. It seems ironic that they should start and end their life together near the same road.

She grew up in Indiana with her four sisters. She is the one in the chair in the picture to the left. After she got married, she moved with my dad to the Chicago area to start a new life. They followed the American dream and raised a family of three boys. Although they never made it to Germany, they traveled all over the States as well as the Middle East and the Orient together. My mom found the Lord back in 1970 and dedicated the rest of her life to studying the Bible and being a part of the family of God.

She was a woman that loved colors, textures and flavors. She would work long hours in the yard planting flowers, picking weeds and keeping everything perfectly trimmed. Her house was always clean, neat and in order. Her favorite places to go were the Chicago Art Institute and the annual flower show downtown at Navy Pier. Eating was always an adventure at our house. She loved to entertain and try out new recipes. Since she had done a great deal of traveling, we were exposed to the cuisines of the world and she taught each of her boys to enjoy cooking too.

In the final year of her life, I was impressed with how she had reverted back to being a defenseless and dependent little child. She lost the ability to make decisions for herself and most of the ability to speak. In three years, she went from 170 pounds to a very thin 85 pounds. The look in her eyes was one of being lost and completely helpless. At the same time, I envied her ability to not have a care in the world. When I would put her in the car, it triggered a response in her to sing old familiar songs over and over and over and over again. I learned to have at least 20 songs ready at all times. If I didn't have a new one ready, I would go crazy listening to her sing the same one for the next hour. Imagine listening to "She'll Be Comin' Round The Mountain" for the hundredth time. Aaarrgh@#&!!

Alzheimer's did things to her I did not expect. Her sense of humor actually got better. She forgot about the things that made her bitter and angry. She could not remember the things that worried her so much. She had a childlike freedom that made her more fun to be around. When I put music on, we would dance around the house together. When she would yawn, I would poke my finger in her mouth and she would laugh (most of the time). I was teasing her one time as we ate lunch together at Denny's. I was asking her all the questions that a man should never ask a woman. "How much do you weigh? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have any children?," I asked. It was frustrating enough that she did not know the answers. What business was it of mine anyway. She was not sure who I was, so she replied, "None of your ##%&^)@# business, you big fat *%#$}@#!!" I nearly fell on the floor laughing. My mom doesn't cuss. So it was kind of extra funny to hear her response.

Alzheimer's disease is very scary and lonely. It is a long dark tunnel in which you just slowly fade away. I would not wish it on any one. It was not just my mother that went on this journey. My father and I experienced every turn in the road with her. I tried to read and understand as much as I could about the journey that was before us. I think I understood it all in theory but nothing could prepare me for the coldness of reality. Every time the sun would go down, a sickening fear would grip her. In her imagination, she pictured her children lost and alone. They had not come home and she was in a panic to find them. Reasoning with her did no good. The fact that we were all grown did not occur to her. Friends stopped visiting too and just drifted away. I do not blame them. What do you say to a person who does not remember who you are? What do you say to a person who has forgotten how to talk? It is uncomfortable.

I joined her in that long dark tunnel and I held her hand until the end. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wish I would have had someone to talk to. Someone who could have held my hand and guided me through each new challenge. Through it all, I have learned that God is my strength and there is nothing that He and I cannot do together. The rest of our family lives far away and my friends drifted away too. I do not blame them. To have a friend, you must be a friend. Taking care of my parents was all encompassing. I finally started to pay a caregiver to come in a few days a week. That gave me a chance to go shopping, get a haircut, go for a walk and get away for a while.

She died in her own bed next to her partner. It was mid morning that I noticed she had stopped breathing. I had to wake my dad up to tell him the sad news. He just crawled over and held her for a while. We had said our goodbyes a few nights before. We knew it was coming but it was still a shock to see her go. Near the end, she had forgotten how to swallow. Instead of going into her stomach, food and water would find it's way into her lungs. Thank God for our local hospice program. The VNA (Visiting Nurses Association) sent a nurse to our home that helped me to navigate the last few months of her life. I honestly do not know what I would have done without them. They made her last days as comfortable as possible.

It has been seven months since she left us. Our lives are emptier without her here. My dad and I have looked up several times in expectation to see her sitting in her chair. Sometimes, I hear voices at night. I amble down the hallway to my dad's room to hear him speaking to her in the darkness. The bed next to him is empty as his arm reaches out to touch where she has been. "You are the love of my life" he gently whispers. "You were a better person than I was. I love you and miss you. I can't wait to see you again."

I wish I could say that it was not a burden to take care of my parents. It was. I'm sure it was also a burden to raise three boys. She changed a lot of diapers and endured a lot of anxious moments as she struggled through life. There is nothing wrong with picking up a burden. It was my choice and I will have no regrets. Jesus picked up a burden one day. He could have avoided it and walked away. If you read his story, he had many chances to do so. He picked up a cross and endured the utmost pain. All he had to do was say the word and angels would have delivered him. But he chose to die for you and me so that we might know life and we might know the depth of the love of God. Knowing this has given me the strength to endure.

At the end of the day, it is not about you and it is not about me. It is all about God and his love. He is not here because we invented Him. We are here because he created us.

I'm glad you are home, mom. I'm glad you are whole again and are in the presence of the one who loves you most. See you soon.

Your son,



Kuanyin said...

What an amazing post! Mahalo for your visit to my blog so that I would find you and read this very touching post! Happy New Year!

Ross said...

That was a very moving tribute to Grandma, Jeff! Thank you for the effort you put forth to create that. I think of you and Grandpa often and hope you are doing well.



Chris Young said...

Wow Jeff,
You have been through so much...I praise God that you have been able to make it a testimony. God certainly must have a great deal in store for you...this has been preparation in the desert, and yet you were able to still find joy in the journey. God bless you brother! You are awesome!
Chris Young