Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"More than an empty apartment with the scent of old age..."

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A few years ago, while working in my LifeLine job at the VNA ...I often had conversations with a nurse that also worked there. We both had elderly mothers and we would share our mutual fears, frustrations and concerns about them. And even though for different reasons... she was also challenged... as I was by her mom's strong personality.

We would talk at our desks if she was at my end of the office or I up at hers or we'd even meet and vent outside or inside the ladies room and chat briefly in passing. :) It felt good to have someone to commiserate with.

I had the privilege of meeting her mother because I went to her lovely town house to set her up with a LifeLine unit. She was delightful! And quite energetic for her age. She bounded up the stairs better than I did with my then torn meniscus.

She proudly showed off her doll collection and family pictures on the walls... which were throughout her home. It was spotless... everything in it's place. She told me she did most of it herself, but her daughter did have someone come in once a week.

She was my last person for the day and so I stayed to have a cup of tea with her.

I scheduled it at the end of the day because we lived in the same town and I could go right home from there. Both the coordinator and I would stay and visit with clients when time allowed because we thought it was important to befriend them and be supportive. Many were shut ins or they were alone often and enjoyed the company. We have even taken out garbage, gotten mail and fixed curtains. Not in our job description, but it felt good to help. It was one of the perks of the job. And of course we fulfilled our main purpose for being there..installed the units and provided instruction with reassurance... as well as encouraging them to call us if they have any questions or concerns.

While sitting at her dining room table as we sipped our tea...she told me her birth certificate had burned in a fire and so there was a discrepancy about her age (she had been adopted), but she went with the younger age. :) And she teared up when she spoke with great love for her husband who had passed on.

As I walked out, I complimented her beautiful garden she had by her front walk. I was fascinated with a certain cactus. She insisted on digging up a piece for me and she told me how to plant it. I thanked her and was on my way.

I did plant it exactly as she said, but it didn't survive the following winter.

I heard she passed away after I had stopped working.

One day while I was sitting at my desk...her daughter, the nurse I worked with stopped by to give me what I am about to share with you. I was instantly moved when I read it and kept it in my files the entire time I worked there.

And now I would like to share it with you.

Since I have gone through these things with my own mother and seeing her the way she is now... I can not read this without crying... but it is sweet... bittersweet for anyone who has experienced these things... and perhaps a reminder to all of us to make the most of our time, keeping our perspectives on what is most important.

In my opinion...what is most important is our faith and the relationships we build. Our memory and example will live on in the minds and hearts of others.
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Reflections ~ Carol Kehlmeier

What Remains?

She's more than an empty apartment with the scent of old age.

We walk through her tiny apartment deciding what to do with her tiny possessions. No longer independent, she must be moved to assisted living.

One granddaughter will take the bedroom suite. A grandson will take the yellow kitchen stool he climbed on as a toddler.

Her lovely crystal will be divided among the family.

Linens made by ancestors, china painted by a distant relative, silverware hardly used because she wanted to, "keep it for special occasions" and a drawer filled with old photos -- all are reminders of her past.

Is this what remains of a human life when independence is no more?

As a young woman, she gardened. She raised her children. She sang as she washed dishes.

A painting of a smiling Christ hangs above her bed. A worn Bible sits nearby.

A Christmas cactus waits patiently for a sprinkle of water.
The carpet is worn, the paint is chipped and the faucet drips.

There was more to her than a 27- inch TV. She held babies and saw them grow into adults. She rode in horse-drawn carriages as a girl. She saw men walk on the moon in her middle years.

She danced. She rode a donkey in the Rockies. She fished. She laughed. She rolled bandages at church.

She isn't just a shadow on the wall. God knows her. She's a living being with a soul.

There are memories of a daughter who was a homecoming queen and of a son who was a football hero.

There was a front-porch swing where they sipped lemonade and the rose garden in the back yard.

There was the taste of ice cream, the feel of satin and the endless hot white sky on a summer afternoon.

She doesn't hear or see well or even walk steadily, but she's still a person with memories.

She's more than an empty apartment with the scent of old age. She has a heart. And inside her heart... she wants to sing and dance again.
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Speaking as a daughter who spent weeks last fall going through her mother's things... these kinds of thoughts went through my mind too.

I felt emotions so powerful..that I have never been able to attach words to them.

It is both profoundly moving and surreal... when you know someone is coming near to the end of their life... and you are then faced with objects that represented who they were. What they liked. What they did.

And it was painful...emotionally painful... because I would immediately be catapulted back in time to when I was a little girl..or a teenager. They weren't always happy times. I spent a lifetime trying to avoid those memories.

But some were sweet memories.

And One of my favorite discoveries was an old discolored candy tin that was filled with buttons. You would've thought I found gold! I immediately called my son over to share in my discovery.

The tin was filled with my grandmother's old buttons she saved! When I was a little girl...I used to love running my fingers through so many buttons. And I also played with them while I was sitting on the living room floor. I used to dump them out, line them up by colors or size or make designs with them. And I admired some of them and thought they were so pretty.

So I will be displaying that tin as a decorative piece and every so often..I will open it and run my fingers through the buttons. :) I am trying to decide if I should clean the tin up or leave it as is.

And it was sad... to have to clean out her things. I think the worst of it for me... was when I came across things I knew nothing about. It represented things she never shared with me. I had this feeling ...I should have known these things. Was that my fault I didn't or was it because she was so private?

I was repeatedly struck with wondering and finally concluding that this is what it comes down to. We live our lives. We hopefully build lasting relationships. We build memories. Hopefully more joyous then sad.

But in the end... we can't take our material things with us. Someday... we will all be surrendering these objects. And someday... we may be surrendering our ability to live independently... to do even the most simple things for ourselves. If we live long enough...it is most likely inevitable.

But no matter what happens... we will always have our experiences in our hearts and in our spirits.

I still can't articulate my feelings when I was cleaning out her apartment. As I went through her personal items... I felt a sense of loss for what could've been. I wondered about her life. And I was struck by..thinking..."This is it? It comes down to this?"

I am still at a loss for words.

I will write more when I understand these feelings better.

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