Of Mosquitos and Tee-Shirts

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference…spend a night with a mosquito.”

I discovered this African Proverb in one of the many catalogs I receive via snail mail this time of year. It was printed in an ivory ink on a dark green tee-shirt. It struck a cord with me…reminding me that powerful gifts can come in small packages. And small gestures can have a stronger impact than we may think they can.

My elderly mother has embraced this philosophy all of her life. She is the poster child for extending a helping hand. For walking those few extra steps to complete the mile on the behalf of another person. And whether her effort was small or large, she never missed a beat. It was as if she had a specialized radar system embedded into her brain, allowing her to zero in on her opportunity to make another person’s life better, be they a stranger or a close friend.

And because I have learned from her example and have chosen to embrace her philosophy, I have also had opportunities come across my radar to make a difference in someone’s life. I am not saying this to toot my own horn, but rather to honor my mother.

When I was in design school, there was a sweetheart of a gal who was always struggling financially. She worked a couple of part time jobs while maintaining her studies. Her home life was less than ideal. She was a slightly-below-average student. Not terribly creative. Definitely not a bright star on the horizon.

But she was hard-working. And passionate about the profession she had chosen. She never missed a class and always turned her assignments in on time. She was the kind of person you would want on your creative team. Not for her artistic talents. But for her reliability. And her dedication. And her enthusiasm.

She never seemed to have enough money for art supplies, so she was always borrowing them from another student. Usually from one of the few friends she had made. And very often from me. I never minded. I knew her story. And I knew how embarrassed she was every time she had to ask.

I wanted to help her. But in a way that would not make her feel like she was getting a handout. So, I made a deal with the manager of the art supply store at our school. He and I had come to be friends and he knew this gal’s situation. I gave him $100 and told him to present it to her in the form of a gift certificate, and tell her that she won it in a random drawing. And to never tell her the money really came from me.

After we graduated, we were all gathered at our local watering hole, celebrating our achievement and sharing our future plans. And that sweetheart of a gal came up to me and thanked me for paying for that gift certificate at the art store all those semesters ago. Because it was during that time she was seriously considering leaving art school and getting a full time job. She said if it were not for that gift certificate renewing her faith to keep on going and to stay in school, she wouldn’t have made it to graduation.

Now, I tried to play dumb, but she had my number. She said she knew it was me all along. She insisted that she wanted to do something for me in return.

I told her there was only one gift I would accept. I told her that some day someone would cross her path who needed her help, which would require no great effort on her part. I asked that she give that person the help they needed. And if that person would ask what they could do for her in return, that she should ask the same of them that I was asking of her.

I lost track of this sweetheart of a gal after graduation, as we all went our separate ways. A few years later, I ran into one of her old gal pals from art school. They told me she was working for a non-profit organization as a production manager and loving every minute of it. I could not have dreamed of a better situation for her. Or a more dedicated production manager for that non-profit.

Small gestures, like that $100 I gave to the art store for a gift certificate for a gal who was short on funds, can make a huge difference. And I don’t mean that money is always the answer, because it is not. The answer lies in keeping those specialized radar systems embedded into our brains in good working order. So we can zero in on the opportunity to make another person’s life better, be they a stranger or a close friend.

Simply because a gesture is small, does not mean it is not powerful. Or that it cannot have a far reaching impact. And if you are still not sure this is true…ping me after you have spent an evening with a mosquito.

Majority’s Rules

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
—Mark Twain
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Our old buddy, Mr. Twain, makes a valid point. And in my humble opinion, ain’t nothin’ wrong with taking the road less traveled or marching to the beat of your own drum. And I know of no place on earth where is it written in stone that the majority rules the waves.

Yet I am by no means discounting the level of comfort that comes with the knowledge that other folks share our opinions. Or that they have had the same experiences. Sometimes being in a majority can ease our minds and boost our spirits.

I believe the answer lies with knowing when we should break out of our comfort zones and step outside of our proverbial boxes to take a walk on our own path. And this is a lesson my mother has been teaching me all my life. Mostly by example, in the way she has lived hers.

At 94-and-a-half years young, my mother is still marching to the beat of her own drum. She is an intelligent gal. Independent and spirited. Warm-hearted and giving. And her age has never had an affect on these traits. On the contrary. All her life she has set the example that it is your attitude which counts, and not your number.

Yet the rules governing the majority can sneak into our daily lives and have impact when we least expect them, or wish for them. In my mother’s case, it is her declining physical and mental ability because of her advanced years that is robbing her of a quality of life that should be hers, by her right and by her choice.

But she can’t make that choice, no matter how much she wants to. She can’t fight a body that is failing her and a mind riddled with dementia. She can’t break out of her box.

But she has bucked a lot of trends. She is 94. Excuse me…94-and-a-half. Which exceeds most life expectancy/actuarial tables. And while she needs to use a walker now to get around, she is not in a wheelchair. And while her short-term memory has tanked, her spirit remains strong. And while many of the people of her “Great Generation” have since passed away, she keeps on keeping on.

She has to play by Majority’s Rules because she is elderly and her body and her mind are failing her. But she can still choose to live her life on her own terms. She has chosen to keep living, and not give up. She has chosen to greet everyone she meets with a bright smile and a sparkle in her eyes. She has chosen to exude love and happiness rather than indifference and bitterness.

She is taking Majority’s Rules and tossing them out the window. She has paused and reflected and decided that as long as she is able, she will take the road less traveled. She will march to the beat of her own drum. And she will do so until, as she often says, her good lord calls her home.

Reboot

“You will never be handed anything in life you cannot handle.” I believe these words of wisdom to be true. With the caveat, “Even though you may not think so at the time.”

And as my responsibilities for the care of my elderly mother continue to evolve, I have discovered I need to remind myself of this philosophy from time to time, caveat included. Most recently when I took my mother for her quarterly visit with her family physician.

The good news is that the results of my mother’s blood work showed all positive numbers. And physically she is doing as well as could be expected at 94-years-young. The hiccup came when the doctor pinged the status of her mental health, most specifically the decline in her short term memory.

When the doctor asked if she was experiencing any frustration or anxiety when she could not remember things, she replied she was noticing a lack of patience on her part recently. When the doctor asked her to give him an example, she was not able to reply immediately and instead, remained frozen in confusion.

I watched as both of my mother’s eyes looked to the left, then blinked, then looked to the right. She repeated this pattern a half a dozen times. She was trying to find the information in order to respond to the doctor’s question, but had no idea where to look for the answer. She was like a computer whose hard drive was ready to crash; it’s spinning wheel icon locked; frozen, not knowing where to find its system to reboot.

It was frightening to see the totally blank look on her face, with no recognition or ability to respond.

When prompted again by the doctor, she did manage to say she believed she had recently had lost patience with some situation, but could not recall what it was. She was waiting, she thought. For something rather than someone, she thought. And got annoyed when whatever she was waiting for was not happening right away.

This was the first time my mother had exhibited this type of behavior at this higher level during a visit with the doctor. I had seen snippets of this pattern before, but never this severe. It shook me to my core.

For a woman as intelligent and as independent as my mother, I know how frightening it has been for her to lose her mental abilities. But as time passes, I realize that the more she forgets, to a certain degree, the less frightened she is. She no longer remembers what she is forgetting, if that makes any sense.

It is these situations which prompt me to embrace the words of wisdom that I will never be handed any in life I cannot handle. And by doing so, I initiate a mental reboot of my own internal hard drive. I restart, reset my preferences and clear my cache. And with a fresh perspective, I keep putting one mental foot in front of the other. Because I know if I am going to be able to continue on this journey, I need to embrace the challenges as they come. And move ahead, one small step at a time.

The Walrus Strategy

The time has come, the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings

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This little ditty from “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”, written by Lewis Carroll in 1872, bounced back onto my radar this past week. It entices the reader with the promise of an intriguing chatty-cathy session with the Walrus.

Yet if you read the poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter” through to the end, you discover the Walrus and his pal eat all the oysters they have persuaded to leave a cozy sea bed to share a pleasant walk and a pleasant talk along a pleasant beach. With the oysters occupied with the Walrus’s discussion of topics ranging from cabbages to kings, they were clueless that they were to become nothing more than a sumptuous snack.

Great strategy for the Walrus. Not so good conclusion for the oysters.

Upon reading this poem again…after many years of neglect for a lesson learned as a child sitting at my father’s knee…I realized my husband and I routinely employ the Walrus Strategy when dealing with our puppies. No, we do not eat our puppies. But rather, we have enticed them with the promise of a favorite treat if they will quickly come into the house…so they will not see the bunny sitting along the outside of the fence surrounding our back yard…preventing a rousing romp along the fence line peppered with frantic barks echoing throughout our neighborhood.

Great strategy to keep the puppies calm and quiet. And good for the bunny’s peace and contentment.

When driving home from a visit with my elderly mother yesterday morning, I realized that I have also been employing the Walrus Strategy during my recent visits with her, in an attempt to keep the dementia at bay. I focus our conversation on happy topics, to keep my mother’s mind occupied and distracted from the nasty repetitive thoughts that can sometimes envelope her.

I routinely chat about the antics of our puppies. Or share a little anecdote about one of my husband’s and my recent adventures. My mother typically responds with a memory from 30-plus years ago, and our conversation remains pleasant and keeps a smile on her face.

Great strategy for my peace of mind. Not so good for our nemesis, Missy Dementia.

However, this strategy is not full-proof. Because no matter how hard I try to keep the conversation positive, Missy Dementia will typically rear her ugly head at some point, sending my mother into a mental tailspin as she regurgitates the same nasty thought over and over and over again.

Unfortunately, the Walrus Strategy is hard to re-employ. So, I simply chalk it up to the rules of the game at this stage in my mother’s life. And take comfort in knowing that at least a portion of our visit was pleasant.

And I will let you in on another little secret. In the end, I would much rather be a Walrus than an Oyster.

The Treasure Hunt

When visiting my elderly mother yesterday, our usual game of Hide and Seek quickly turned into a Treasure Hunt. And while there are similarities between the two games, Treasure Hunt has far more appeal for me. Hide and Seek has a singular goal, to locate a particular item. When playing Treasure Hunt, it is the thrill of discovering the unknown which peaks my curiosity.

Our visit started out in a predictable fashion. A hug and a kiss, followed by her query about my husband’s welfare. As I put away this week’s batch of clean laundry, I discovered a nightgown in the drawer where her clean bed linens reside. My mother explained the gown had a torn seam down the one side and she could no longer wear it. And that she intended to hand-sew the seam.

Now I knew she would never sew that gown. But I did make a mental note to find the sewing kit I had given her almost two years ago, which had squirreled its way into some secret hiding spot in her room. If only to prevent her from asking me to bring her another one.

And so our game of Hide and Seek began. First, I checked the inventory of her nightgowns in the closet and in her dresser drawers, to make sure she had clean and wearable gowns. Which led to collecting her dirty underwear and the discovery of a pile of panties that had fallen behind the cabinet in her closet. But it was her request for me to bring her more writing paper on my next visit that turned our game of Hide and Seek into a Treasure Hunt.

I had brought her eight pads of writing paper and a dozen pens only two short weeks ago. And even though she is a obsessive note taker, I had to believe she could not have gone through all that paper in such a short a time. Knowing she had most likely stashed all those pads in the bottom of her nightstand, I sat down on the floor and opened the nightstand doors. The cabinet was crammed full. I checked the clock and knew I had enough time to clean out that cabinet before she was scheduled to go down to the dining room for lunch. So, I girded my loins, and made the announcement.

“Hey, Mom. How about if we see if we can find your note pads in your nightstand here. And who knows what else we may find. We’ll have a Treasure Hunt.” My mother grinned and we were off on our quest.

I pulled out four boxes of bandaids; three were full and one was empty. One box half-full of knee highs. A dozen paperback books. Two plastic containers filled with shoes she never wears. One empty box of Kleenex. One full box of Kleenex. And piles and piles of old junk mail and activity calendars from her assisted living facility and loose pieces of papers scribbled with illegible notes in her handwriting.

And drum roll please…six new pads of writing paper and one packet of six new pens.

As we sifted through the pile of old mail and calendars and loose pieces of paper, we were able to throw the majority of it out. At her insistence, we kept the few Christmas cards she received last year. And of course, the latest issue of her favorite magazine. And her monthly calendar with the facility’s activities calendar paper-clipped to September. I organized the cabinet so she could reach everything easily. With plenty of room for her to toss in new items and hopefully still find what she needs.

And, oh yeah…I did find that illusive sewing kit. It was laying on top of some handkerchiefs in one of her dresser drawers. Since I had been in that dresser drawer only a week ago, I am curious to know how it had magically appeared there this week. I wonder where its secret hiding place was. And what may be hiding there now.

I suppose that discovery will have to wait for next week’s game of Hide and Seek and our latest game…the Treasure Hunt.

Hide and Seek

Back in the day when I was a young lass, I used to enjoy a game of Hide and Seek on a breezy summer afternoon. I was a good Seeker, since my neighborhood playmates would usually hide in the same places, which made them easy to find. There was a sense of comfort to their predictable strategy in playing the game.

I was also a good Hider, since I would never hide in the same place. There was a sense of adventure to my non-conformist strategy in playing the game. Yet I do admit, I would become bored after a few rounds of a game where the outcome always seemed to be the same. And I would look for a more amusing form of entertainment elsewhere. Much to the chagrin of my playmates.

As my elderly mother falls deeper under the spell of the nastiest playmate in our current neighborhood…our nemesis, Missy Dementia…I have rediscovered the game of Hide and Seek. With all its predictability and its non-conformist strategies.

The first round of our game started a few months ago, when I entered my mother’s room at the assisted living facility where she now lives and she claimed she could not find her address book. She was frantic, because this book contains all the phone numbers she needs, including mine. After looking through the piles of magazines and birthday cards scattered next to her phone on the table under her window, I realized I was looking in the most predictable of hiding places. I was looking for her address book where it had always resided since she had moved there.

So, I put on my Seeker Hat and started my search. I poked around her nightstand and I located her address book on the bottom shelf, stashed under an empty box of Kleenex and a pair of slippers she never wears. For some reason, known only to my mother at the moment she did so, she had put the book there for safe-keeping. Only to forget she had done so, a few moments later.

As round after round of this game of HIde and Seek continue, I have been the Seeker for a multitude of items. Pens that magically disappear and reappear in the top drawer of her nightstand. A new box of hand soap that is right in front of her on the shelf next to her bathroom sink. And my personal favorite: dirty underwear that changes its hiding place with every dirty laundry pickup I make.

Because of her dementia, my mother’s patterns of behavior are predictably unpredictable. Good news is that I am rarely bored. Bad news is I now find myself craving a sense of comfort bred by predictability.

And while I wish my mother could remain carefree and enjoy a game played on a breezy summer afternoon, I know Missy Dementia has her own strategy. And in the end, it is she, not my mother, who will be the victor.

Back In The Saddle Again

My short, albeit welcome, reprieve from my responsibilities for my elderly mother came to an end with my visit with her yesterday. Overall, she was a happy camper. But did slam-dunk me as I walked into her room and before I even had a chance to say hello. She was obsessing over the instructions on how many times a day to use the special toothpaste the dentist had given her three months ago. So, I addressed her concerns, then said hello and gave her a hug and kiss.

After that, it was a typical visit, as I put away her clean laundry and a myriad of her personal care items. Our conversation ran to the usual topics, regurgitating them in what has become the usual cycle of repetitiveness.

I did run into Head Nurse Kay as I was heading to my mother’s room. Kay said that my mother has seemed less anxious since she has been on a new medication to help with her most recent and higher level of anxiety. But she is still obsessing about what she perceives to be a new and mysterious fan noise in her room from the heating and air conditioning system. And is still bothering the maintenance guys multiple times a day. Kay said the nursing and maintenance staff have developed a new plan, where a maintenance guy will pop into my mother’s room once a day, instead of four or five times a day like they had been doing.

As I left my mother’s facility, I felt the same sense of sadness that I have been for quite a while now. This feeling has become as familiar as an old friend. A very high-maintenance friend, who needs to be constantly reassured and cajoled and sweet-talked into submission.

And that’s okay. Because I know this feeling will only continue to gain strength as time passes. As long as I can continue to embrace it, I can continue to manage it. And by manage it, I mean accept it for what it is, and find new methods to cope.

So, I am back in the saddle again. Rockin’ to and fro. And going my way the best way I know how.