Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's a Simple "I'm Here."

I met my future mother-in-law on a cloudless day 39 years ago as I stood with my wife-to-be outside a small rural airport terminal and watched her mother’s Cherokee Piper taxi down the runway and come to a stop, whereupon she emerged all smiles and shopping bags.

“I’m here,” she said, jumping out of the plane and on to the tarmac, ready to hug. “You must be Thom.”

When Lisa told me we needed to run to the airport to meet her mother’s plane, I pictured Dallas Love Field, not Denton Regional . . . and perhaps American Airlines, not DillardAir. But, here she was, Vaudine Dillard, in command of the skies, in command of her self, ready to embrace the next stage of life, the marriage of her only daughter.

Through the years we would meet planes flown by Vaudine or by her husband, Bill, even loading up our children to fly away with them with no fear or concern. The Dillards may have been the most responsible and stable people I've ever known: college-degreed, business owners, homeowners, strong people of faith, great parents, dedicated community leaders, adventuresome world travelers, dependable neighbors, a perfect couple.

I actually found them a bit terrifying as they brought some predictability into my own life. It took me a long time to really get to know Bill and Vaudine because I found myself peeking around the corners of their personalities, looking for the hidden motivations and manipulations that mar so many people. There were none; they were just who they are. Their lives were models of clarity, poised to descend into fog.

It’s hard for children who love their parents to accept changes that are beyond the normal. Beyond fading vision and hearing, slight and normal forgetfulness, the steady slowing brought on by aging. Love can cast a softening shadow that hides the early signs of Alzheimer Disease and dementia. Distance – Lisa’s parents were in San Antonio and we were in Oklahoma – can make it harder to hone in on the slow slipping as it picks up the pace.

Even as Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, longtime friends of the Dillards commented that they had seen signs of dementia in Vaudine even before Bill. But, such is the randomness of the mental diseases. His disease moved fast, stripping away his understanding of the day-to-day. Hers chipped away in little bits, enhancing, in a sense, the day-to-day, leaving her content to do things over and over, repeat questions and be satisfied with repeated answers. Bill was ravaged; Vaudine was just reduced.

We sold their home of more than 50 years; moved them to live with us; moved her father to a Veteran’s facility; moved his body back home, most all outside his awareness. Lisa’s pain at her loss is overwhelmed by the continuing need to care for her mother, a complicated process, as her mother seems so unaware of any need for care, something we now accept as something which could go on for many years.

In his final days, Bill’s mind focused on his days of flying. Sitting in a chair by the window, watching bulldozers clear the land near ours for the building of a neighbor’s home, he said, “I think they’re building that runway a little too close.” His words were few; his mind perhaps on flights of fancy.

It seems unfair that Lisa had two parents who found their lives drawn backward by the erosive dissolving of dementia.  On many days, I myself – the much-loved, one-and-only son-in-law – feel the weight of unfairness myself, as if I got a little more than I stepped forward for when I said “I do.”

But, who doesn't?

Lisa’s parents loved me when I needed to be loved and accepted me when I needed to be accepted. They cared not so much that I was a bit different from them; only that I was the one their daughter loves.

So . . . fairness is not a viable part of the process in caring for loved ones who are diminished despite their best intentions, sweetest dreams and greatest hopes. They become a little different, but they remain the ones their daughter loves.

On quiet nights as Vaudine sits in the recliner where her husband spent so many of his final days, she reads letters to herself from a pilot she once knew. Letters from her husband of his days in Japan, full of exciting plans to raise a family; build a business; buy a plane, teach his sweetheart to fly. He did all of that and the fact he remembered none of it in his final moments makes them nothing less as accomplishments.

We, the caregivers, are sometimes exhausted, scrambling around to meet all the needs of the diminished ones in our care. Get this; find that; repeat it all again. And then, in brilliant returning moments of the clarity we once saw in them, they help us understand.

“Do you need anything? Lisa will say as her mother turns the pages of her book of letters.

“Only Bill,” her mother replies, as she closes the cover and smiles.

If we've learned anything from caring for Lisa’s parents, it is that enough love makes all things equal. It is not what you know or how well you retain it. It is not what you can do or what must be done for you. It is not what you give up to give to others. It’s just love, plain and simple.

It’s a simple, “I’m here.”

In the eight years since Bill's death, we have been here for Vaudine, watching as the ever-reaching-deeper-into disease of dementia tugs at the intricacies of a carefully-woven life, trying to undo it's uniqueness. Would it be more successful without the watchful eye of a loving daughter who frames each challenging day around the memories of thousands of yesterdays? I don't think so. That is what a caregiver does. He or she assembles the present withing the parameters of a precious past.

And says, "I'm here."

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