Today (August 14, 2016) marks four years since Mama died. It was a Tuesday then. At 5:50 pm, Mama took her last breath.
She went into what would be her death sleep around 1 pm on Sunday, August 12, 2014, with her last words of “I guess they’re going to throw me out now,” suffering, I think, the final heart attack that led to her death.
I assured her that I was not throwing her out, that she was home, and I loved her. It took me several months and writing Fields of Gold: A Love Story before I realized that Mama was back at nursing school at East Tennessee State University, unable to follow all the instructions she was given because of a congenital hearing loss, about to be dismissed from the program because she could not hear the doctors when her back was turned to them (she compensated for her hearing impairment by masterfully reading lips, even with hearing aids, most of her life). Continue reading →
Sixty years ago today at 4 p.m. in Unaka Avenue Baptist Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, my parents, Ned Moses Ross and Muriel June Foster, in front of a few family and friends, took their vows of marriage to each other, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health for as long as they both lived.
Although neither of them on that day could have imagined how their lives together would unfold, testing along the way the strength of the unconditional commitment they made to each other, my daddy and my mama were lovingly faithful throughout their union to their promise before God and their promise to each other. Continue reading →
This is my fourth Mother’s Day without my mom. Although the immediate excruciating pain of losing her has subsided into a dull constant ache and longing punctuated by sudden and unexpected moments of intense grief, often triggered by a memory or something externally that I associate with Mama, I still miss her terribly.
But time and space has allowed me to grow into a deeper understanding, a greater respect, and a more complete love of this incredible woman that I was blessed to have as my mama. Continue reading →
Mama has been everywhere on my mind the last few days and I realized that her birthday is coming up this Wednesday – March 2 – or Thursday – March 3 – depending on whether the date on her handwritten birth certificate is correct or the date that Social Security had listed for her is correct.
Growing up, Mama’s birthday was always March 2. A part of me still sees that date as her legitimate birthday. It wasn’t until I started in the role of her medical power of attorney (several years before dementias came to stay) that I became aware that the government had her birthday as March 3 and I memorized that date as part of the litany of information I had to give to medical providers, insurance companies, and pharmacies each time we interacted with them.Continue reading →
Recently in one of my caregivers’ support groups, I was asked by of the members if I could give her recommendations on books she could read on how to cope with/get over the intense grief she is still experiencing several months after the death of her grandmother (who had dementia).
My response was that I didn’t know that a book would help her because grief and the grieving process is unique to each of us, especially in the case of dementias because we lose our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s twice: first while they’re still living and then again when they die.
Grief is sometimes very complicated. We all grieve differently, based on our relationships, our personalities, our temperaments, and our experiences in life.
The reality is that no two people ever grieve exactly the same way.
And this is one of those areas of life where people can cause a lot of irreparable damage – and layer even more pain on top of the pain of grieving – by imposing their ideas about grieving (how long, how much, how deeply, etc.) onto those grieving in the form of criticism for and impatience with the process as it unfolds.
None of us can get inside the grief of another human being. We’re not them. We haven’t walked in their shoes. We don’t know everything about them and we don’t know everything they know.
To assume that we do and to turn those assumptions into lectures about how we have been where they have been and we know what they’re going through and we know they’re not “doing it” right is the height of ignorance and arrogance.
Having had several friends in the last couple of months lose a parent and walking through the valley of the shadow of impending death with someone else who is losing a parent right now has brought the grieving process, which I’m still in to one degree or another with both of my parents, and its winding road that it is continuing to carve out in my life, back to the forefront of my mind.
The reality is that grief never really leaves us (it changes over time and it changes us over time, but it also comes right back in full force at you in the oddest moments even after a lot of time has passed).
In the end, grief is the price of love. It’s a high price, but I know that none of us would ever choose not to pay it.
I can’t imagine not having ever had my parents in my life, so even though their deaths have left gaping, sometimes acutely oozing, sometimes intensely aching holes in my heart that will never be repaired in this life, having them both for as long as I was blessed to have them makes this worth it.
Even in those moments when the pain is so strong that I can’t remember it for that instance.
So, for all of us who are somewhere on that continuum of the grieving process, know that grief after death means we loved in life. It doesn’t have a playbook nor does it have a time limit. It will get easier to do over time, but it will be a constant companion for the rest of our lives.
And, when it’s all said and done, that is a very, very good thing. Never forget that.
Three years ago today at 5:50 pm, my mama’s journey through dementias, Alzheimer’s Disease, and congestive heart failure ended.
With Mama’s death, like my daddy’s death almost 17 years ago, each anniversary seems like yesterday and forever at the same time.
But I’m thankful for the memories to help me try to cope with the permanent voids of their losses in my heart and in my life and I’m thankful for the hope that I’ll see them again whole and healed.
I promised you and Daddy both that I’d be there. God’s willing and so am I. So even on the days when it feels like life is just unbearable torment I continue to put one foot in front of the other with God’s help, enduring, persevering, and continuing to grow in that faith and walking toward fulfilling that promise, even if it doesn’t look like it and nobody else can tell.
But you, Mama, and Daddy would know if you were here and you’ll know when I’m there. That’s often the only comfort I have these days. And maybe that’s all I need when I can see that comfort through the pain. I know it’s worth it because I watched you and Daddy and I learned from both of you.
So I’m remembering you publicly today, Mama, just like I do privately every day of my life. I love you. I’ll see you soon.
I’ve always tracked time through music. I can hear a song and go back with photographic accuracy and precision to the exact time, the exact place, the exact month, and the exact year that I either first heard it or when it made such an impact on me that I’ll never forget it.
Usually these jaunts will prompt me to walk back through other times and places in my life – perhaps to test my own cognition – to see if I still remember them with the same level of accuracy with regard to details and precision (even down to wallpaper and house layouts in each of the many houses we lived in growing up). So far, so good.
But yesterday afternoon I heard a song that took me back to almost five years ago – July 12, 2010, to be exact – and hit me with the same effect it did when I heard it that morning.
Unexpected tears began to fall as I relived that memory and the memory I relived that day that took me even further back in time, way before dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease came to take my mom and me through its journey together.
On Sunday, July 11, 2010, in the very wee hours of the morning, my mom had the psychotic meltdown that would land her in a geriatric psychiatric hospital for almost two weeks and that would give me the grim diagnosis that she was in the mid-to-late stages of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
When my phone rang at 7:15 a.m. that Sunday morning, I already knew it was about Mama. The week before had been insane – with wild and dramatic mood swings, mostly negative, with each one getting more dire, and out-of-the-ballpark suspicion and paranoia – so I knew we were coming to a point where something was going to break.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t going to be me first. I was restless, anxious, unable to sleep that Saturday night, and as I paced and prayed, I kept telling God He needed to do something because there was nothing left that I could do to help Mama.
And He answered those prayers. I wasn’t at all surprised when the voice on the other end of that early morning call identified herself as someone from one of the psychiatric hospitals in the area. She said that Mama had been brought into the emergency room around 3:30 that morning (Mama had called 911) and they had determined that she needed to go to the only geriatric psychiatric hospital in the area.
The lady on the phone ask me if it was okay to involuntarily commit Mama. I said the only thing I knew to say at that point: “Absolutely.”
She then told me the procedure for going over and changing it to a voluntary commitment by me, told me what to pack for her, and told me that Mama would be there by early afternoon.
I hung up, surprised, but not surprised, my mind racing about what I needed to do that day and what I was looking at needing to do within the next couple of weeks. It was all a little overwhelming, but I tackled the tangible stuff first that I didn’t have to think about.
I went over to Mama’s apartment in the independent retirement community she had decided to move to, without ever discussing it with me, five years earlier. I opened the door and decided to pack the bag I needed for her, clean up, and make sure there was nothing pressing I needed to take care of.
I packed Mama’s bag, labeling all her clothes so that they wouldn’t disappear. Then I decided to clean the apartment, make her bed, and do a thorough inspection of everything.
In the midst of cleaning (the refrigerator, which I tried to keep an eye on, but which I’d not been able to since she had pretty much banned me from her apartment the last couple of weeks before that, made me wonder how she had not killed herself with some of the science experiments that were in there), I found a notebook that she’d accused me of stealing two days before, hidden behind the only place I did not look when searching for it the day she told me that I’d better leave because she’d called the police to come and arrest me.
I shook my head as tears rolled down my cheek for my mom. I found a couple of bills that needed to be paid, so I took them home to pay. I knew even then that she would not be able to come back to that apartment to live, so I got on her computer and sent emails to her friends and let them know she wouldn’t be back on (no details), then unplugged the cable modem (I had been paying for her internet service) to take back to the cable company the next day.
Once everything was clean, I got Mama’s bag and her purse and the important papers I needed, and anything else valuable to take with me, and left to do the rest of what needed to be done that day.
The next morning, Monday, April 12, 2010, I began the day’s to-do list with returning the cable modem and stopping the service for Mama and having that taken off my bill. Everything was still surreal, although I was going through the motions, taking care of the things I could before the first visit I could have with Mama at noon.
On the way back from the cable company, I turned on the radio and this song came on:
Immediately, my mind went back to when I was little and Mama had the radio on all the time and we heard this song in the mix of the music that was played. I thought of those carefree days and when Mama was healthy and then all the music and summer days we’d had since then played like a movie through my memory.
Then I got to the present and I was sobbing. Not only for the past, but for the reality of the knowledge that we’d never be able to go back there again. I was crying for what we’d lost for good.
That was the song I heard yesterday. It took me right back to being in that car face-to-face with a new reality for Mama and me, reminding me again of that trip down memory lane that I had taken (and which I took again yesterday). And unexpected tears streamed down my face again.
I’ve had a hard time listening to “Mama” songs since her death. For the most part, I’ve avoided them like the plague because they evoke such a strong emotional/memory response in me and my mind and my heart get consumed with a grief I can’t stop and I can’t contain.
I don’t know exactly why this song prompted and prompts such a strong emotional reaction in me. There are no concrete, specific memories, other than the one five years ago, attached to it.
There are many other songs that I do have concrete and specific memories of Mama and me attached to: U2’s “In God’s Country,” The Commodores’ “Easy,” and Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” are among them.
Maybe “Chrystal Blue Persuasion” is just a demarcation song for me and that is why it is so powerful. It encapsulates a childhood I miss, a mom who was at the top of her game, and a world and a time I’ll never have in again in this life. Maybe that’s all it is. And maybe that’s enough.
My advice? Embrace the music. Embrace the memories. And embrace the tears.
Because that means you had – and have – love.
And that is most precious thing we take, not just through, but beyond, this journey we walk through with our loved ones.
My mama, Muriel June Foster Ross, was born March 2, 1929 in Erwin, Tennessee, a small town in the hollows of the Smokey Mountains in northeast Tennessee.
From the get-go, Mama had a life full of tragedy and triumph, successes and failures, bad times and good times, love and hate, deep-down sadness and uplifted-heart happiness and forgiving and forgetting, which I chronicled in the first book I wrote after her death, a memoir about my parents and us kids and our life together titledFields of Gold: A Love Story.
My mama was a most remarkable woman in so many ways, because no matter what came her way in life, she persevered, she overcame, and she prevailed.
Mama left me with an incredible legacy and some pretty big footsteps – ironically, because Mama was a lady whose physical foot size was 4.5W while my own foot size was almost twice that big and even wider – to follow in and I see continually how far I fall short of the example she left me.
However, even in my failures, I see Mama’s legacy of prevailing and not quitting. I’ve finally been able to see that even trying and failing is doing something and that beats not failing because I’m not trying to do something any day of the week.
It’s still hard for me to fail over and over, but I find myself rehearsing Mama’s life and all the places where it looked like failure and she could’ve quit but she didn’t. And, in the end, not quitting brought incredible meaning and blessings to Mama’s life.
My mama was intelligent, curious, active, humorous, whimsical, outgoing, and loving. She had a lifelong love affair with learning anything and everything. Mama was a decent writer – she got her second Bachelor’s degree in English at the age of 54 – but she was an even better oral storyteller.
Mama’s twinkling blue eyes and her mischievous smile could light up even the darkest room. She had her dark moments, her fears, and her insecurities as well, but she reserved those for the people she loved and trusted the most: my daddy and us kids.
Mama’s journey with dementias (vascular and Lewy Body) and Azheimer’s Disease probably began in 2005. The real nuts and bolts of these neurological diseases didn’t really appear in full force and persistently until 2009. And the downhill slide was pretty precipitous from that point forward until her death (related to congestive heart failure) on August 14, 2012.
But I had the blessing of being beside Mama throughout the journey and through the end. That’s priceless. I also had the blessing that Mama didn’t live long enough to become completely uncommunicative and bed-ridden. That would have killed both of us. The journey was no picnic, but the blessing was that we shared it, and I am thankful for that.
It seems that each Mother’s Day since Mama’s death has made me miss her more than the one before. On the one hand, I’m glad Mama’s not suffering anymore. But, on the other hand, I miss her.
And not just the Mama I remember before these neurological diseases, but the Mama I remember after they appeared. There were moments interspersed with the chaos, the uncertainty, and the tough stuff that were some of the softest and gentlest and most loving moments Mama and I ever shared and those are etched just as deeply in my heart, in my soul, and in my mind.
Every few months, I write a post on the immediate need for everyone – no matter what their age, their health, or their life circumstances – to know and understand the vital information that needs to documented (and executed in terms of legal documents) and communicated to their designee when they are unable, either temporarily or permanently, to take care of their own affairs.
This includes digital access (email accounts, online bank accounts, retail accounts, etc.) documentation as well as legal, medical, and financial documents everyone needs to have in place when we need help or can’t take care of our own affairs in this area.
I am extremely puzzled by the fact those most people put this off and avoid thinking about it or doing it. It’s illogical and it is really cruel to those whose laps it ends up in.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about a family member – especially parents of grown children – being incapacitated with life and death in the balance and because nobody ever talked about this contingency and no documents – living wills and/or DNRs – exist, there’s no clear decision-maker and the ability to let go (taking off life support when there’s no chance of recovery) is long, hard, and gut-wrenching on the family.
And the one who didn’t take the time to spell out their wishes suffers terribly and needlessly, not to get better, but essentially just to run up a meaningless huge debt that will decimate their estate and perhaps ruin the financial health of those they leave behind.
None of is guaranteed our next breath, a healthy life with no life-changing accidents and diseases, nor a healthy mind for as long as we live. Things could literally change 180% for any of us and our families and loved ones while we’re reading this sentence. Yet, of all the things it seems that we humans deceive ourselves about, this seems to be the top “It won’t happen to me.”
But the reality is that it will.
If not sooner, then later.
And the most selfish and irresponsible thing that we can do to our families and our loved ones is to not be prepared ourselves and to not ensure that we have designated and prepared the decision-makers we choose in advance.
This is one of the greatest acts of love and one of the biggest blessings we can do for and give to those closest to us and whom we love the most.
All of us need to be preparing in advance for the possibility that something – whether it’s Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, other life-threatening illnesses, or simply time and chance – could suddenly and dramatically or slowly and insidiously render us incapable of taking care of our own affairs.
With the precipitous rise in dementias overall, which may be in part related to a more toxic planet, more toxic water, and more toxic food, and the burgeoning number of lifestyle-related dementias that are emerging, the odds are not in our favor that every single one of us, in time, will not suffer from some sort of neurological degeneration.
Who is going to help us when this happens?
And even if you or I are the exception to the rule, we’re still going to die. Everybody dies.
You can ignore it, you can deny it, you can live in some fantasy world where you refuse to think about it ever, but it doesn’t change the reality that it will happen to you and me.
I believe most of us assume that death will be quick and instantaneously, but the reality is that, in all likelihood, most of us will probably have a period of decline in which we will need help handling our financial, legal, and medical affairs before we take our last breaths.
And, after we take our last breaths, someone will have to take care of getting us buried and ending our financial, legal, and medical status among the living.
Who would that be for you? Yes, you, the one who is reading this post. Do you know? Does that person know? If that person knows, have you made this as easy as possible for him or her by doing your part and making sure he or she has everything he or she needs to do what needs to be done?
Or, because you don’t want to think about it or talk about, will that person have the burdensome responsibility of trying to figure it out all on his or her own?
We say we don’t want to be burdens to our loved ones. By taking care of this, you and I – we – have taken a big step toward easing the magnitude of that burden that, if we live long enough, will be shouldered by our loved ones.
I did my first will and living will shortly after I turned 21. I review and update, if necessary, both of those when my circumstances change or 12 months have passed. I have a signed and notarized DNR.
I have complete documentation on my digital footprint, as well as other financial, medical, insurance, property, and notification (for death) documentation that I keep updated as well.
I have detailed instructions regarding my funeral service and my burial.