Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Big A

I went to the doctor today to check on a few little things. He told me I am a very fit 73-year-old, that he sees 40-year-olds who aren't anywhere near as fit as me. That surprised me — but what excellent news.

I asked him about testing me for dementia. I have a family history on my Dad's side, but a scan done a year ago revealed that, while I do have the gene, I don't at this stage have it in the form that would result in Alzheimer's. It's something to keep an eye on, just in case.

I had a concern because, in the nine months since I became a widow, I have been more forgetful than I used to be. For a while there were memory blackouts of whole incidents! I would recall those things later, after some days or weeks, but I'll never know if I remembered them all. I bumped into the psychologist I used to see, and said, 'Quick question: is this normal in grief?' She assured me it was — as well as confusion, difficulty concentrating, etc. etc. 

My doctor today confirmed this, and added, 'There's another thing. Your mind was on alert 24/7. You were looking after someone who needed a very high degree of care. When that stops, your brain slows right down. It's not a pathological slowing, but it's like it needs a rest.' 

That made perfect sense to me. After Andrew died, I very soon noticed a physical slowing down. I realised I wasn't running on adrenaline any more. I remarked that I was a great deal slower and less efficient than I used to be. This has continued to be so, although I'm adjusting and find that I'm efficient enough. Either I've got used to the way I operate now, or my body is starting to recover from the stress, whereas the brain — where most of the stress was  — is lagging behind a little. (That's OK. Take the time you need, Brain. You've earned it.) 

I felt huge relief to hear him say that, about '24/7'and 'high degree of care'. It was very good to realise there was one other person in the world who understood exactly what I was coping with in those years — the unique combination of Andrew's (increasing) mental and physical dependency.

He suggested, too, that it's probably the less important things that are going out of my mind quickly. A moment's thought showed me that it is indeed so. Unfortunately, they can be things which other people do regard as important! Well, too bad.  a) I can't help it, and b) I'm due for a bit of self-indulgence.

'I can have a high level conversation with you,' said the doctor. 'I've got no doubts of your cognitive function. If it seems, later on, that you're deteriorating at all, then we can do some tests. And if you do get Alzheimer's ...' He hesitated. 

'Then I go out and cut my throat,' I said with sudden bitterness, surprising myself that those words in that tone came out of my mouth. He sat in silence a minute, then muttered, without meeting my eyes,

'Yes, I think that's what I'd do, too.'

We made wry faces, shrugged, and went on to the next topic. In that moment we'd both acknowledged the truth of that terrible disease. Andrew only had it mildly, for which I am ever thankful, but even that was bad enough. I used to think how much worse it was that he had so many physical ailments too. 'If it was just the Alzheimer's ...' I used to think. But it was diabetes and peripheral neuropathy as well, not to mention cardio-vascular disease and osteo-arthritis. 

Now I see it as a blessing in disguise that he had all that going on. It was much harder on both of us at the time, but it meant that his body wore out before his Alzheimer's became extreme. It was starting to get worse, but he never went into so much confusion that he didn't know me or his children and friends. I could already see, though, where it must lead. 

His mother had it. Andrew used to speak of visiting her in the nursing home. The last time he saw her alive, he found her under the bed, looking terrified, and barking like a dog! The horror of that haunted him the rest of his own life, even decades later. I am so glad he himself was spared such a fate.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a friend who asked about my bereavement, 'Does it get better with time?' I burst into tears and said, 'No, it gets worse.' Yet since then, as if that released something, I have been rather better most of the time. I have been better adjusted to being on my own (with the cats). I have quite enjoyed my home and my freedom, being absolutely my own boss. I have started to savour the relief of not having to be on full alert all the time, responsible for that high level of care he needed. 

Tonight I was anguished again. I see that it was to do with remembering how hard life got for him — and perhaps with remembering how hard it got for me too, as a consequence. 

Also it hit me earlier today that there is no-one else, and will never be anyone else, who was so interested in all the little things to do with me — no-one who cares so much if I get a sore foot or a pimple on my back, or decide to wear a blue dress instead of a green one. 

Tonight, as if to confirm that, I saw on DVD an old woman, widowed 23 years, being asked if it was hard living alone. She said, 'There's no-one else you can talk to like that person.' Then she added, 'Time heals' — but she looked so wistful when she said the first thing, I thought time hadn't healed her grief all that much.

Always, it comes back to my certainty that his timing was perfect, that he left at just the point where his quality of life would no longer have outweighed his distress and discomfort. That is the thing that makes it bearable — because it's true, and incontrovertible. I cling on to that. 

And I think of Hazel Hawke, the recently deceased, widely loved first wife of ex-Prime Minster Bob. Divorced after many years of marriage, she said angrily, when she was diagnosed with the Alzheimer's which eventually killed her, 'I was just starting to make a life for myself.'

I think it's unlikely I'll get the big A — though I also heard on TV tonight that 50% of 85-year-olds do. That shocked me. 50%!!! In any case, for me age 85 is still twelve years away. I don't have it now, and I too need to make a life for myself.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Starting to Adjust

I didn't want to. I resisted for quite some time. It seemed that if I did adjust to my loss, I would lose him all the more: as though the acuteness of the loss kept him present. But of course, what I was keeping present was the loss itself.

Despite me, time has gone on; the stages of grief have unfolded. I have formed new habits and routines, which I am getting used to — not to mention making deliberate, practical changes to my home, so that it works for my present circumstances. And then, some things I still do the same way as ever, because there's no reason not to. They worked then and they work now. At first that very familiarity was agonising; now it is becoming a comfort. The cats, too, are settling into this somewhat familiar and somewhat altered way of being. 

Levi became very stressed when I transformed Andrew's old office into a comfortable spare room / sitting room, with almost entirely different furniture. He used to spend a lot of time in there, keeping Andrew company. After Andrew's death, he would go and look for him in that room. When I started making the big changes, to my horror he began pulling out his own claws. I didn't at first make the connection, but tests by the vet revealed no physical cause so it had to be emotional. It wasn't hard to identify what recent drastic change there had been to his environment. The vet suggested Rescue Remedy, and I'm thankful that Levi calmed down and stopped de-clawing himself. Now both cats have laid claim to the new space, liking to stretch out there in the afternoon sun. (Meanwhile, I got stuck into the Rescue Remedy too.)

As I have mentioned before, the stages of grief are not linear. It can be one step forward, two steps back. I had a very bad time around the six months mark, and was greatly helped by a wonderful spiritual healing which a new acquaintance was moved to offer me. Then I went through another bad bit at eight months, with a lot of private crying. I can have days of feeling quite happy and engaged with life, only to sob bitterly at night. I enjoy many things about my life — the same things I always enjoyed — then I feel bereft all over again because he is not there to share them with. No-one else but each other was so interested in all our important trivia.

So I have had to learn to actively pretend he is here, listening — to talk to him about my stuff anyway, either in my head or aloud. Yes, I am turning into one of those crazy old ducks who talks to herself all day long. Sometimes it is indeed me I'm talking to, rather than the him in my head, as another thing I decided was to be my own companion and confidante. Aren't we all being that to ourselves all the time, really? I've just made it more conscious. 

My life is working pretty well. I don't get enough sleep, but then I never did; always too inclined to burn the midnight oil. I am starting to institute naps, which might help. I don't get enough exercise, but then I never did much of that either. But I'm doing some, and rather more than I used to. I'm eating healthy; I'm balancing my budget, if sometimes only just; and I have a nice ratio of solitude to socialising — one that suits me, anyway. I'm seeing new shows, reading new books, writing new poems, looking after the cats, and keeping my home reasonably neat and clean. I even weed and water the garden now and then, which didn't happen a lot when I was busy looking after Andrew. I take my photos, do my shopping, make decisions, even buy furniture. I am good at manifesting what I need. I think of something I want, such as a new coffee table, and it turns up almost immediately at the Palliative Care opp shop for $5, or free in a roadside hard rubbish collection — yes, in good condition too. I am blessed.

The fact that I live alone (my oft-reiterated reminder to myself: 'There's only me') has its up side. I'll put something away in a place that might confuse someone else — because, for instance, it's too big to fit where one might logically expect to find it — and I catch myself thinking of how to explain this. Then I realise: 'There's only me.' I don't have to explain it to anyone else. I can do whatever I like within my own home. What pleases me, for whatever reason, is the only criterion.

There were times, at first, when being able to keep the place looking as beautiful and orderly as I'd always dreamed of felt hollow without him here to enjoy it too. Gradually I gave myself permission to enjoy it alone. What's the sense of doing these things if I then take no pleasure in them?

I'm inclined to be even more sedentary than I was, because I'm not having to keep jumping up to attend to him. On the other hand, I'm freer to get up and do some exercising now that I'm not constantly on call. 

I find that, now the cooler weather is here, I'm glad to have the bed to myself. We never wanted it the same temperature, and it was always a bit of a juggling match trying to get the right amount of blankets each side — this one with an extra rug that didn't stretch over, that one with a blanket folded back double....  At the same time, I'm glad we always did share a bed, right up to his last night home.

The various things about which I thought, 'If only,' I've come to realise could not have been any other way. If only I'd taken him out of the first nursing home, the one he hated, sooner. Then I remember that his legs weren't strong enough before that; they gradually recovered strength while he was there. If only I hadn't put him into that home at all. But hang on — we thought at the time it was going to have to be permanent. The other nursing home didn't have a permanent bed just then. 

If only I had left him in nursing home 2, the one he did like, instead of bringing him home. They said he was showing signs of illness. I could have left him in longer on temporary respite, or had him made permanent. But he wanted to come home, and was so happy here for that last six days (which we both thought would be much longer). What if I had left him there? He might have ended up in hospital anyway and declined just the same, and we wouldn't have had those precious days together. Or they might have maintained him in better health — but the decline was going to happen anyway, there's no doubt about that. He might have lingered for months, getting worse and worse, and me tied to visiting daily and watching it happen. What distress for him and for me! No, the timing was right for both of us, and the way it all happened as it did. I can see, when I stop to look, that it played out perfectly, even though that was by no means clear at the time.

I believe he had a premonition, though not exactly consciously. That last day he was home, he wanted to go up to the end of the street and see our mate Joseph. But Joseph wasn't home. He also mentioned that there was a woman he'd talked to in one of the other houses. He had mentioned in the past having introduced himself, but I could never work out which house he meant, and with his Alzheimer's he was unable to show me. On that last day, he wanted to talk to her, but I still couldn't ascertain which house he meant. Months later, when I needed to borrow a phone handset to test my connection, I knocked on several doors trying to find a phone with the right plug. One door was opened by a young woman who said, when I introduced myself, 'Oh, are you Andrew's wife?' Then I had to tell her he was dead, and tears came to her eyes. 'He was a lovely man,' she said, and I realised I'd found the one he'd spoken with. I still need to go back some day and tell her that he was looking for her to say goodbye — as I believe he was, subconsciously. 

That and various other little things make me believe in hindsight that his soul knew, and that it was indeed right timing. The anguish I felt about his final weeks and months turns out to be somewhat misplaced. It was all as good as it could be under the circumstances. It all worked out for the best, even though that was hard to see when it was happening.

And so I am adjusting. This living alone caper isn't so bad really. It's not as if I've ever been the great extrovert. So I watch my TV shows and laugh out loud, and make comments to myself that once I'd have made to him — and I realise that I was always enjoying them inside my own head, as he was inside his, sitting next to me. I still have my own mind; there's no need to stop enjoying.

It's nice not to be run off my feet nursing him. It's nice not to be panicky at night about his increasing confusion and agitation; not to have the responsibility of trying to contain that. It's very nice to start remembering him more as he was in earlier years, when his body and mind still served him well. 

It is when something triggers a memory from those final months that I howl. It was such horror, to see my beloved deteriorating before my eyes — a horror I was unable to confront squarely at the time. I needed to stay in the positive as much as I could, for both our sakes. Yet those last months also included some of our closest, most loving moments. So recent, so traumatic, so emotional — that period has loomed large. But I must have processed it almost to completion, as I am now starting to live more in earlier memories, ranging over our whole time together. 

It's been several days since I got the sobs. I know enough by now to expect they'll be back, but I also know I can survive them and go on.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not Having a Day in Bed

After a very late night and promising myself a lie-in, I woke yesterday to a morning of drizzly rain with that set-in-for-the-day feel. Just the day for a lie-in — after feeding the cats, of course. In the old days, that's just what he and I would have done. We'd have brought our breakfast back to bed, sat up side by side reading our books (always reading something) and eventually we'd have snuggled down for snoozes and cuddles. Sometimes we'd have watched a show on the laptop. 

We'd have stayed there, nice and cosy, half the day or more. We might have got up for lunch, or we might have brought that back to bed too. Sooner or later one or both of us might have gone to do something on the computer, or to turn on the telly, but we'd likely have stayed in our nightwear all day. It wasn't a frequent occurrence, but a thing we did as an occasional indulgence, on days when there were no pressing errands and the weather was like it was yesterday. 

Yesterday fitted the bill except for one thing — no him to share it with. After all, the bed didn't look cosy but bleak. After I fed the cats, I breakfasted by the computer instead. That felt cosy enough, in my dressing-gown and warm slippers, interacting with friends and reading poems for a long, lazy morning. It took my mind off the empty bed in the other room. For a long, lazy afternoon, I watched some DVDs.

That was the culmination of a week of socialising — old friends to lunch at my place; an outing with new friends; a trip to the Neighbourhood Centre where I volunteer, for a luncheon in honour of the volunteers; a quick coffee with another old friend. And then the writers' group, with good discussions. 

I have a nice life and no mistake. Can't complain. There are many things I enjoy about it, many moments of conscious pleasure. I expect there'll come a time when having half a day in bed will feel self-indulgent rather than lonely. But it's not yet.

Today I did go back to bed after feeding the cats — but that was because I was so darn tired. I stay up too late too often. I went straight back to sleep for an hour or so, which was good but not quite the same.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to Socialise as a Single?

It's been a long time since I've had to. Maybe I should say 'single and elderly'. I was over 50 years younger then — given that I had so little time between marriages that that hardly counts. And anyway, I knew the ropes back then.

Now ... well, I wrote a poem about all the pitfalls and surprises. Read more ...

It's been something of a revelation. So at first I was thinking I would have to learn new rules. 

And indeed, I guess I do have to be prepared for those differences I've now encountered. Although the wedding ring is back on my wedding finger, it doesn't look very obviously like a wedding ring. It's not the traditional plain gold band, but jewelled. Though I wouldn't have thought an overweight 73-year-old was much enticement to anyone, I was mistaken. The person concerned accepted that it was a misunderstanding and we're still friends, with no repercussions, but if it could happen once it could happen again. Do I have to be careful now not to give the wrong impression to others? I do hope not. 

Flattering, you think? I suppose so, but I don't feel particularly thrilled about that aspect, just that it's a nuisance and the last thing I want. (I wrote a poem about that, too. Read more ...) I begin to see the usefulness of a period of mourning, as in the past, when the widow wore black to signify not only bereavement but that she was still unapproachable to suitors. I can undertstand now why Queen Victoria wore it the rest of her long life after losing her beloved Albert.

As for the other thing, of being relegated to the society of other older single women, it happens that some of them are among the most interesting people I know. So that's only mildly irritating and largely amusing. 

I have met one new friend my age who wasn't in the least worried about having me meet her very nice husband too — but they are a European couple, perhaps more intelligent on such matters. And, as I said in one of the poems, the old friends aren't bothered either. 

So I have decided to do socialising just how I want to, pleasing myself. I've decided to do as I would if I were still part of a couple (and providing my partner was in good health; my darling's poor health did restrict our socialising in his final years).

I have friends who invite me for visits, where they would once have invited the two of us, and I have started issuing reciprocal invitations. No reason I can't entertain, I realise. I'm not much of a cook, but then I never was. That doesn't mean we can't eat well. It's a pleasure to plan these occasions and to get in delectable goodies for my friends to enjoy. 

And when there are outings that I think my friends — single or coupled — might enjoy sharing with me, I'll ask them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Oh, a Bit of a Bad Day Today

I hurt my ankle, mislaid my car keys, and now am having a bout of heavy sneezing. And there's more.

I've had a day of intermittent weeping and howling over my loss, and about his last days/weeks/months. I was a bit surprised — there hasn't been so much of that lately. Finally it dawned on me why: anniversary reaction.

On the first of May a year ago Andrew was admitted to the first nursing home, the one where he was so unhappy (as described in my previous blog, Shifting Fog). I was very unhappy too as a result; it was a nightmare time for both of us.

After a fortnight he was well enough physically to come home, and deteriorating mentally because of his environment, so for both reasons I took him out of there. One of the best decisions I ever made! By the time a nursing home was needed again, we had found a lovely place which suited him much better.

Even if the first place had been wonderful, it would still have been a very confronting thing, putting one's beloved spouse into that kind of care. On that first day, a year ago, I believed he would never be able to come home again. I did a lot of crying that day too.

And yet, at the time we had no choice. It was the only place with a bed. For physical reasons he needed high care, but this was solely a high care facility. He had only mild Alzheimer's and was surrounded by people with advanced dementia — no-one to have a decent conversation with. He didn't receive bad care; it was just that the place was wrong for him.

At this distance, I can see that things really did work out for the best. He was cared for when he needed it, and if it had been a better place he might have stayed there until his death instead of coming home for several very special and precious months. And, if we'd found the better place initially, perhaps we would not have appreciated it as much as we did by comparison.

So it is for everything that happened. I can start to see, now, that — given his age and illness — the way all sorts of things came about was ultimately for the best. But it's one thing to be able to grasp that intellectually — it doesn't help my feelings right now. At the time that things were happening, it just wasn't possible to shed all the tears I had. So here they are, well and truly triggered, the ones that belong to this day a year ago.

Expressing Myself in Verse

I'm a poet, so I'm always doing that — even more so than usual, this last month. For the whole of April I responded to an annual challenge from Poetic Asides (a section of Writers Digest) to write a poem a day. (April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and some facets of it have spread to other countries.) Not only did my writing energy go there, but most of my widowhood chronicling too. There are some things I didn't include in the poems, which I'll catch up with here in the near future. Meanwhile, this link takes you to my April poems. Not all of them are on topic, but most are. Usually, when I confronted the keyboard, that was what was there to write, so I did. But there are also some pieces of light relief.