Inland Waters

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Salt Creek, Joyce, WA

On my bookshelf is a well-worn book entitled “Exploring the Seashore, in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon”, published in 1978. The penciled in reduced price on the face page indicates it was purchased as a used book. Next to the price is my mother’s name in large, bold, printed letters: R. Hubbard. Most the books in my parent’s library were my dad’s, whose interests and hobbies gave direction to their retirement years. Multiple books about Lewis and Clark testified to his role as founding President of the National Council for the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, a role that took them on trips and to meetings throughout the states along the trail. There were other books about places they traveled to in the states and abroad, various history and natural history books, cook books, a collection of paperback “classics” and pop literature from the 70s Dad ‘borrowed’ from a box of books from my college years. Mom was not a book person, though she did read more after dad’s death, before Alzheimer’s made remembering and comprehending challenging. This one book, which she bothered to print her name in, represents her very personal love of the ocean.

A trip to the ocean two weekends ago brought memories of a similar trip in 2010. Realizing mom would soon be unable to travel, and knowing how much she loved to go just about anywhere, I asked her one day where she would like to go. She replied, “Oh, I guess the ocean”. So we went, more than once, before she could no longer go.

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Mom recruiting Mike to help her collect those ‘special’ rocks on the beach at Rialto.

And she loved it. The first trip, to Rialto Beach, we stayed over night at Three Rivers Resort. Sitting on the beach, ever the rock collector, she pointed with her cane to rocks of all sizes and colors, asking Mike to pick them up for her, putting them in the cup holder of her chair. That evening we watched a breathtaking sunset.

Mike and Mom watching the sunset at Rialto Beach, 2010

Mike and Mom watching the sunset at Rialto Beach, 2010

Our second trip, a few weeks after her 90th birthday in 2011, was to LaPush, where she again sat on the beach, bundled in a blanket, so content, so at peace, and so animated when we ate dinner and played cards that evening…it is a cherished memory.

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Happy Mom, LaPush, 2011

Now mom cannot tell you she loves the ocean. She cannot speak, the result of a stroke a month ago, and if she could, there are few words left in her mind’s storehouse of words, and few memories of her self and her life, the result of Alzheimer’s. Mom now lives in her own private inland sea.

Most of this year she was able to talk, even as the words became fewer. Her talking was often repetitive and mostly dealt with what was going on in the moment, yet we had conversations where she was able to express her feelings, her frustrations at missing her granddaughters’ weddings, her embarrassment at having bruises on her arms, her confusion about why others wanted her to shower and do things she no longer wanted to do. She made comments that suggested the fear, confusion, and anger at what was becoming of her life, and herself, emotions I could read in her expressions even as the words became fewer.

Now she is expressionless, she mostly gazes at some place I can not see.  Yet finally there are times she seems calm, there is a placid feeling to her presence.

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Hood Canal at Scenic Beach State Park

After our few days at the ocean, Mike and I camped two days at Salt Creek Recreation Area on the Strait of Juan de Fuca before going home to spend time with mom. Though storms can churn the inland waters, most days there is a gentle rhythm to the tides on the strait, protected from oceanic forces. Wanting to camp once more before Mike went back to work, we spent this past weekend at Scenic Beach State Park, on the Hood Canal, close enough to where mom lives so I could spend time with her. The Canal was serene, the incoming tides gentle, the clear water lapping the rocky beach. Water and mountain views were in muted shades of gray/blue/green. These are the inland waters of the Northwest.*

Like mom, I too love the ocean (doesn’t everyone?) and the sense of exhilaration and freedom one feels when walking on ocean beaches. Ocean lovers go to the beaches to let the power of the sea wash away what ever needs washing away in our lives and minds. We partake of inner soul cleansing while watching the tides wash clean the beaches of debris. The ocean can help expand our perspective on many things as we gaze at the horizon that seems to go on to infinity and walk beaches that seem endless. Rocks, sand, shore birds….the exploration of flora and fauna unique to the seashore, it is a world of wonder. Mom’s book she so boldly marked as her own reveals she found the seashore a fascinating place and wanted to know more of its inhabitants. Growing up, no matter where we lived, driftwood decorated our home.  In her bathroom, mom kept a jar of favorite stones, covered with water to enhance their colors. She brought the ocean home.

On this recent trip, to my surprise, I found the ocean’s energies almost too much. I appreciated the calmer inland waters. Juxtaposing these inland beach visits with visits to mom, I realized, as I witness her journey, I am watching her move to the more phlegmatic inland waters of her deteriorating mind.

She would have loved the gentle waters of Scenic Beach, only 30 minutes from where she now lives. But her body is too weak and mind to frail to make even that short trip.

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the calm, blue/gray view from Scenic Beach

There were other trips with Mom…over nights to Mt. Rainier, Anacortes, lots of day trips. Any trip Mike and I took without her she followed on a map and vicariously enjoyed the places we went, I sent her pictures and notes when I could so she knew where we were. Last fall a day trip here to the Olympic Peninsula to have lunch at our house was a delight for her. Though tired from the trip, the Ruth-that-loves-to-go-and-see-the-world was alive and happy at the end of the day.

That Ruth is gone. The Ruth of now is on a journey I, nor anyone, can share with her. I pray that on her silent inward journey she is experiencing calm seas.

(Below, I too was recruited into retrieving mom’s beach combing finds. Mike took this series of pictures as we shared a new find and a precious moment at Rialto, 2010)

mom and pj rialto

* note: Though the term inland sea usually refers to land locked seas, and the strait, canal, sound, and bays of Washington are not landlocked, they are “inland” from the ocean, thus I call them the inland waters.

 

The Girl In The Turquoise Swimsuit

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The girl in the turquoise swimsuit runs along the rocks, feet protected in turquoise, cowgirl-looking rubber boots. Red bowl in hand, it appears she is looking for pools in the river. Wonder what she is hunting for? No tadpoles in this river. Scrambling over rocks and downed trees, she is a picture of youthful summer freedom. The red bowl disappears and she grabs a fishing pole, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s pencil thin profile camouflaged on the rocks.

My thoughts go back to my mom and the horrific week she has had, first medicated into a glassy stare with few audible words in her already diminished vocabulary. Alarmed finding her this way, I discuss it with her doctor who suggests one of her meds is stopped. The next day she begins to throw her food, refuses to stand to go to the bathroom, and when offered, throws her remaining meds on the floor. One caregiver, the quiet, gentle, night-time one, manages to give her night-time meds and she blessedly has a few quiet nights.

Tomorrow is the sixteenth anniversary of dad’s death, her husband of 55 years and best friend since she was fifteen, for better or worse. Consciously she does not even know the day of the week, let alone the date. Tomorrow is also the wedding of a beloved private caregiver who has been in her life for 2 years, she has waited a year for this event. Last week she talked excitedly about it.  When I told her Tuesday I would be back Saturday to take her she replies, through her mental fog, “I hope I am here”. The longest sentence she said that day. (It is looking doubtful we will be able to take her, but we will try.)

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I am startled by the girl in the turquoise swimsuit as she approaches. “Can I pet your dog?” “Yes” I say, but over the rippling river song she does not hear me and repeats the question as she walks up and asks Abby’s name. I ask her if she has caught any fish.

“A little tiny one, a bullhead. It got away. I named it Swish.” She looks at me and laughs self-consciously.

I ask what she was catching in the red bowl. “The bullhead, get it…bowl, bullhead!”

I wasn’t that witty at (I’m guessing) age eleven.

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Summer fun in the water, 1937. Mom, in the stripped swimsuit, is sixteen. Dad, with his foot up, writes they were nursing his cut foot.

I no longer have a memory of my mom’s voice and personality before Alzheimer’s stole who she was. I wish there were videos, but her pre-digital generation is preserved and documented in precious old brown tone pictures, black and white snapshots, and early Kodak color prints, now faded to muted tones. There is no voice to these images. Soon there will be no voice to the woman she has become, the woman with the diseased brain who dominates my thoughts and pushes memories of the mom I knew out. I try to make choices in her life that honor the choices she made when she could better express herself. I remember her values, her likes and dislikes, I remember for her.  Occasionally she remembers too, and those are the precious moments.

I ask this young girl if she fishes often. She says this is the second time and notes that both times it has been when they were camping. I ask her if she has a dog. Yes she says, and tells me the dog’s name. A voice calls her, she yells “What”, and is off running. Apparently her mom is sunbathing on the river rocks around the bend, on the little island formed by tree debris and pillars set in the river.

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Mom use to light up when she would see children. She had a friend who brought her young children to visit with “Grandma Ruth”, the little girl would dance for her and mom would talk about it for weeks as though it happened yesterday, because for her it did. But they do not visit anymore. The two adult family homes she has lived in the past six months are not so child-friendly to visit.  And mom not always pleasant to be with. Mom has to move, her third move in 6 months. Her behaviors “too disruptive to the other residents”. I will resist “soapboxing” my thoughts about the hypocrisy and cruelty of this “eviction”, everyone in the caregiving business will tell you how moving a person with dementia accelerates the decline. It has been true for her.

The girl in the turquoise swimsuit and her mom take a dunk in the river. Her mom is young, athletic, slender. She wears a turquoise bikini. It will be decades before this young free spirit playing in the river will one day notice her mom is aging, perhaps she too will need to do more for her, picking up the pieces of life her mother drops and can no longer manage, trying her best to respect, support and honor her mother’s own free spirit.

I silently offer a prayer for them as I watch them walk out of the river together. I pray that if that day comes for them, it be in a different world, a new age of compassion, understanding and knowledge, a world where people provide care for the sake of caring, and not focused on profit. A world where Alzheimer’s disease, a cruel, slow way to die, is absent.

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Note: it has been hard to write lately, my life fairly consumed by the rapidly changing needs in mom’s life, my own emotions, and exhaustion. I’ve tried to avoid writing about Alzheimer’s disease, there is nothing cheery to say about it. But it touches many lives, not to talk and write about it is like not talking about the elephant in the living room. Taking a rare break for a few hours today, I was still on the phone with caregivers, the doctor ‘s office and pharmacy. The girl in the turquoise swimsuit reminded me there is life beyond Alzheimer’s. For me, but not for mom.

footnote: the morning after I wrote this I received a phone call and text ultimatum from the RN owner of the adult family home where mom lived. At her request, we already had plans to move mom August 1st, but she told me I had to move her immediately or she would send her to an ER.  Mom’s life was not in danger, nor was she a danger to anyone else. She just wanted mom out of her house.  She said we had one hour to come up with a plan. On a Saturday. Long ferry lines, a long day, 12 hours later we left mom in an unfamiliar room in a strange place, not the room she can move to the 1st. She knows nothing of the who, why, where of this, only that she was put in the car, driven a long way away, and is now around unfamiliar people. They are kind people.  She no longer talks with any cohesiveness, so it is hard to know what she thought on this day up upheaval.

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mouth of the Dosewallips River