Caring for the elderly is a calling; caring for those with Alzheimer’s is a vocation. The decline of the brain is a scary and surreal experience to witness first hand. When you are related to that individual, the pain that comes along with the experience is unfathomable. When that person is your mom… I can’t even imagine.
My mom, her sister, and an incredibly kind caregiver took care of my Grandma Joan as she steadily succumbed to Alzheimer’s. For nearly ten years my mom the forefront of that team. I remember the first night Gram “went crazy.” I was a junior in high school, my boyfriend was overseas, and I didn’t know who to reach out to or how to help. My grandma kept saying “I don’t know where I am. What’s going on?” My mom sat at her bedside holding her hand singing “Jesus Loves Me” and repeating “1, 2, 3, Jesus loves me” to calm her down. Through the mantra my mom would cry. I rubbed her back, mumbled some words, and shed some tears. It was a sobering experience for which we had no schema. In the morning everything seemed normal…
I wish I could remember more about how everything played out after that, but I have suppressed most of those years of my life for many reasons. I do remember her forgetting how to use a fork, how to do a puzzle – which she had been so good at! – and eventually, her forgetting who we were.
Regardless of my lack of remembering the chronological events, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my mom was the ultimate caregiver – for me, my four siblings, her grandmother, her mother, her husband, and his mother.
In the late 90s my maternal great- grandma was in a nursing home about twenty minutes from our home. Every Sunday Mom would wake us up early, sit us in front of the T. V., do our hair, bring us to church, treat us to Dunkin’ Donuts, and then we would go visit Grammy Gootman. Prior to this, my Mom was the one who would chauffeur Grammy from North Jersey to South Jersey every other weekend. My Grandma and her sister would take turns taking care of their mother, but didn’t want to do all the driving. That’s where my mom came in. She kept the family together.
Years later I learned that not a day went by that Grammy didn’t have a family member visit. Although my mom’s family was small, someone was always there to be with her. This was crucial to my mom and the only way she allowed Grammy to be in the home.
Months after my Grammy passed, I can remember Grandma Joan getting choked up that her mom was no longer with us as she was ascending the stairs in my parents’ house. I remember thinking to myself that she was so lucky to have her mother around for so long. Her mother got to know her great- grandchildren! As a young girl, I remember feeling blessed to have known her. I know that feeling did not come from my own being, but from the things my Mom used to tell us. We were so blessed to know our Grammy Gootman.
As my Grandma Joan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my Grandma Finnegan – my paternal grandma – was failing physically. It was nothing more than old age, but it was still tough to see this sharp, beautiful woman’s body slowly fail her and fade away. While my mom was not the forefront person on the team that took care of Grandma Finnegan, she would still visit her, care for her, and spend time with her. Grandma was always full of wisdom and my mom listened – really listened – to what she had to say. Grandma would tell my mom regularly, “You’re good for the family” and that meant the world to her.
During this time, our family dinners would always bring the conversation about our grandmas. It was incredible to have the juxtaposition of both of them failing in different ways. Before Grandma Finnegan’s decline, we had figured a physical decline would be better than a mental one. After experiencing both, it was the family consensus that both…well, sucked.
Three short months after we bid our final farewell to our Grandma Joan, my mom “died with her boots on” as my Poppy Todd – her father – would say. She was in the best physical and mental shape of anyone I have ever known. She lived a life filled with love and joy. She gave all she had to those around her but still managed to make time for herself. She would meditate, prep her meals, and work out.
After losing both grandmas to seemingly “natural” causes, losing my Mom to a fall down the stairs – the same stairs I can see my Grandma Joan pausing on to remember her mother – seems cruel and unfair, but my Mom taught me better than that.
Mom lived a faith- filled life. While I may not have my Mom for the moments and milestones that lie ahead of me, we made the time she was here worthwhile. She would listen – really listen – when I spoke. Whether it was petty high school drama, a sudden break up, or the loss of a job. She would read and research spiritual and physical wellness and then share her knowledge with me. She did all things through Christ and taught me – through her actions – to do the same.
I am now scrounging through her recipe books, looking at her Pinterest boards, and re- reading all of the notes she wrote me to stay close to her spirit. Regardless of where she is physically, I will continue to hold on to her spirit – the most beautiful spirit – so I can continue to grow into the best version of myself to the glory of God.
The number one supporter of my dreams, she always wore my bracelets with pride. All of them did- Grandma Finnegan, Grandma Joan, and my Mom all wore the bracelets I made for them. They are now prized possessions of those who hold them.
I had made the beaded bracelets in this picture for the three women who had given their time and love to caring for “Joanie B” – a name so affectionately given by her caregiver to my Grandma Joan. Gram’s life mission was to spread His love – something my aunt truly channeled while caring for her mother. And my mom, well, she did it as she did all things – with JOY.
Giving into the darkness in the wake of death would be easy and to many, understandable. As a person who struggles with depression on a good day, it may even be expected. When the loss is that of your mother, your best friend and confidant, I can see no fault in following that path… but my mom taught me better. I will continue her legacy of love – the legacy of these beautiful and courageous woman of faith who I am blessed to call my family – with love and joy. I hope that I too can make them proud of the way I live my everyday life while wearing my trinkets of motherly love.