a crisis and a decision

I perched on the edge of my seat next to my father’s bed, ready to quickly move out of the way for the next nurse or patient care assistant that needed to get where I was. So far there had been three, and each time, I stood and moved to the other side of the bed, or generally just got out of the way. I felt out of place, in the way.

The first was a stern-faced woman, her hair pulled back in a tight bun and wearing turquoise scrubs. She brought my father a lunch tray – green beans, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and a cup of brown tea with no ice – and, later, she checked his blood pressure and noted his vitals on a scrap of paper. She didn’t smile. The second and third wore red scrubs. They worked as a team to help my father stand, wobbly and listing to the right. With their assistance, he pivoted with shuffling steps and plopped into the chair that was also a digital scale. After getting his weight, they changed his gown. The sweat-soaked one he was wearing was removed, and almost simultaneously, a clean, pale-blue gown was draped over him, then tied in the back.

He was charming with each of them, even the one who would not smile. He joked that his weight was due to his incredible muscle strength (it’s not). He asked one if she was married (she isn’t). He flirted, and they humored him or ignored him, whichever was most appropriate.

But now we were alone. I sat in the chair beside his bed, holding his right hand for some time, letting go when it got too damp, holding it again. He watched the activity outside his door — other residents rolling by in their wheelchairs, nursing home staff in their colored scrubs pushing medication carts or bins of linens. And we talked.

“Why am I here?” he asked.

I did my best to answer that question, and my chest tightened with each word I spoke. My heart hurt.

You’re here because Mom can’t take care of you alone anymore, because none of us can. You’re here because you get confused, and when you get confused, you often get angry or mean. It’s too much for any of us. You’re here because we need help, and because this is for the best. You’re here because you need full care, more than we can safely do without some support. You’re here because Mom needs a break, and if she doesn’t get a break, she’ll die.

My father has dementia, and until now, we’ve mostly kept it quiet.

My father has dementia, and even though it is breaking our hearts, we made the decision to put him in a nursing home this weekend. Everything came so suddenly, after an evening of crisis. None of us were ready for it. But then again, I’m not sure we ever would be ready. I hope this current placement is temporary, a bandage, until we can figure out a long-term solution. I fear that it will become permanent.

I came home and baked yesterday. I baked a key lime cheesecake, one of Sam’s favorites. I grated limes, measured juice, whisked lime curd, blended cream cheese and sugar. The routine of the process calmed my mind as the sweet aromas of cheesecake filled the house.

The baking helped for a time. It helped until today, when Dad told me he wanted to go home, told me he wanted to die if he couldn’t.


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10 Responses to “remembering to breathe”

  1. Janis Tester — December 22, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    You writing is beautiful.  It is amazing how much we learn about ourselves during these most painful times.  I am going through something similar and I use meditation the way you are using barre.  I think in this last year I have done uncomfortable growing.  You are allowed to take care of yourself. You are allowed to forget all “that stuff”.  It is your right.  So when is your ballet recital? :—)

  2. Jane, The Heritage Cook — December 22, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    A beautiful piece MJ, filled with the love in your heart. Grieving is such a personal thing. Choices you make have to be right for you. I understand your desire to keep contact with your mother, a complicated relationship certainly, but so important in our lives. You have set boundaries that will help protect you – Brava!! I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your children, husband, and friends and may the new year bring you peace and happiness!

  3. Jacqueline Church — December 22, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    Grief takes many forms, as you know. Movement and breathing and focusing intensely can be as therapeutic as talk. But they’re not mutually exclusive and the talk therapy helped you name what the barre classes are helping you to work through.

    I just this afternoon had a little grief epiphany. My grieving of my father (not dead but lost to alcoholism) was a set of training wheels for the real-time grieving of losing my mother before my eyes to Alzheimer’s. I’m grieving in very real ways some other things that are not quite public yet, but this is not about me, I share these things because sometimes it helps to know we are not alone.

    I do love your writing and your insights. I’m really sorry for your pain and I’m very glad you found barre.

    Wishing you peace in this often ironically un-peaceful time of year.
    – Jackie

  4. Jen Schall — December 23, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Oh, MJ… I am at a loss for words, but wanted to leave you a comment to let you know that I appreciate your writing and your honesty. I have always admired your ability to express your thoughts through your writing, which is something I struggle with (I’d much rather just take photos).

    Barre sounds wonderful, and I think it sounds like a great path for you and a great way to unwind and take care of yourself. I’ve turned to yoga quite a bit lately, both for physical healing and to clear my head and deal with stress. And, it’s been more helpful than I ever would have imagined.

    My heart goes out to you, and you’re in my thoughts. I hope you’ll keep writing because I’d love to keep reading!

    Sending my love… XO

  5. Kristen Doyle — December 23, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    You are such a gifted writer. Know that I’m thinking of you!

  6. Frances in Texas — January 29, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

    Life can be hard, and I’m sorry there is so much pain in yours. I’m glad you are surviving and have your family to provide peace and joy and purpose.

    I wanted to send along a link to a report on barre classes which I read:
    After reading it, I admire more than ever your strength and determination to do barre!

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  8. Erica M. — March 7, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    MJ, Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to read more of your blog!  Grief is a funny thing. It can come and go when we least expect it and it’s hardest to recognize when the loss is intangible or doesn’t come with physical artifacts. Keep breathing and keep barre-ing 🙂

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