My sister told me once that I’m good at turning lemons into lemonade. Maybe I am, but I don’t do it consciously. No, Oh, wow, lemons! Let’s make lemonade! It’s more a survival thing. I think I do it because I don’t want the bitterness of a situation to linger, or sour me.
Regular readers of this blog will already know that my mother passed away about three years ago, and that the last two years of her life she was in a dementia-care facility, where Mark and I visited her nearly every day.
In the beginning, visits would take hours. There was no “slipping out” until she was ready for a nap. In the moment, she knew exactly what was going on, but half an hour after we left she wouldn’t remember we’d visited. Miles above a person’s looks or wealth or social standing, Mom valued their mind. She valued her mind. It was really heart-wrenching to see hers slipping away.
Mom was never what one would call pliable. She was smart, strong-willed, and opinionated, and that didn’t change after her memory started failing. She could still throw zingers, tell you all the reasons you were wrong about something, and if she was of the opinion that she didn’t want a shower, it was no easy task to give her one. She was so stubborn about showers that I would often help a caregiver with the task, and we’d both emerge sweating and soaked.
I began bringing along Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty Gets a Bath on shower day and read it to her. She thought Bad Kitty was hilarious. “Don’t be a Bad Kitty,” I’d tell her when she’d screech like one in the shower, and it would give us a short reprieve from hearing how we were killing her “so unnecessarily!”
At first Mom could feed herself. She’d beg us to smuggle in salt. Or a juicy hamburger. “Rare! With lots of onions!” After a time, we began having to feed her, but there was still that feistiness inside. If there was a lump in the food, she’d stick out her tongue to show us the offensive morsel. I made the mistake of saying, “Mom, gross, just swallow it,” and she spit it at me, finishing off with a wicked grin.
I’ve seen my mom in a walker war with another resident, yelling and yanking from opposite ends. I’ve seen her flirt with a new roommate from her hospice bed, mistakenly thinking the new resident was a man. I’ve seen accidents of all manner, and listened to her whispers about her “arch-enemy” – a resident who she couldn’t remember why she hated, but boy did she ever hate her.
Mark was amazing with my mom. She gave him guff and he gave it right back, always with a laugh. She liked that. In him, she found her match—someone who was willing and able to spar, and wouldn’t get spun up by the things she did or said. He’s always been like that with her, and I appreciated it extra those last two years.
At some point during our visit with Mom—or if she happened to be asleep when we arrived—Mark and I took turns “doing the rounds.” We knew all the residents and they would light up when they saw us because we would hang out with them—visit for a bit or play a hand of cards. We’d also fetch their juice, console residents who were upset, or help out any way we could. Mark was the hit with one woman in particular, who would grab for his backside whenever he walked by. She was 92.
With all that time there, we got to know the caregivers, too. What a job. Lifting residents, changing their diapers, bathing them, doing their laundry, feeding them, mopping up their messes…all while trying to stay upbeat and calm when food or teeth or tempers went flying.
I think the best stories are born from experiences or witnessing things that have touched us on a deep emotional level. But being in the midst of my mother’s deteriorating state, I didn’t see the story here. It was just personal. Sad. Exhausting. Private.
It wasn’t until the week after she’d passed away and I was delivering a thank you lunch to the staff that I realized how much I had learned and felt during the two years my mother was in dementia care. And I started to see that maybe I could say thank you in a way more meaningful than a delivered lunch.
And so I cut the lemons open. Squeezed them. Added major cups of sugar, and stirred.
What poured out was The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. The story of a sixth grade boy who has to spend his afternoons at a dementia-care facility where his mother works as a caregiver. Lincoln is who he is because his mother, Maribelle, is a composite of the people—the angels, really—who cared for my mother during the last two years of her life. There are other facets to the story, but what I hope shines through is that it's a tribute to caregivers--a way to encourage people to recognize the hard job they do.