jmgoyder

wings and things

14. Death and dying

About a year ago, Anthony had a series of TIAs (mini-strokes) and was unconscious on and off for a few days. I panicked and began funeral arrangements but he ‘did a Lazarus’ and has been as okay as is possible since then. Recently – the last few days – I have noticed a marked deterioration and this afternoon I couldn’t wake him up and he looked deathly.

I am once again afraid even though I know that tomorrow he will probably be bright-eyed again like he was a week ago. On the other hand, I think I better go back to the funeral people and finish the arrangements just in case.

A friend of mine, whose husband has been in care for around the same time as Anthony (he had a massive stroke), has invited me to a seminar this week on death and dying so I’m going to go. I think it will help me to be more prepared mentally and emotionally. If Anthony were suffering constant pain or distress I would be wanting him to die, but he is so comfortable and uncomplaining that I can’t even imagine it.

It is so many years now that I have been trying to prepare myself for Anthony’s death – ever since the prostate cancer diagnosis when the urologist said he probably had 1-3 years to live (around eight years ago!) But then the Parkinson’s disease took precedence and has been by far the more debilitating of the two diseases.

The fact that Anthony is still such a huge part of my life on a daily basis (even when I don’t go in to the nursing home), the fact that I don’t find visiting him and being with him at all onerous, and the fact that we derive so much enjoyment from each other’s company, leaves me ill-prepared. It will not be a relief when he dies; it will be the most grief I have ever felt, and I’m not ready.

I don’t think Ming is ready either, although he just assured me that he is, well, sort of. He also assured me that he will come with me next time I make an appointment with the funeral directors. I think it’s about time we got back to the business side of Anthony’s death.

One of the things I should probably do is to figure out what to do with my ‘Anthony time’ once he is gone. Of course there is the book I’m writing and that will help, but the gap he will leave in our lives is going to be massive.

This feels like the peak of the anticipatory grief I have felt for so long that it’s like a second skin; this is the knife edge of the most terrible mixture of fear and love. But perhaps this isn’t the end after all and tomorrow Anthony will look at me, smile his slow smile and repeat what he said the other day: “You’re still beautiful, Jules.”

 

 

 

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13. Bittersweet

In recent weeks, Anthony is either in bed or in a broda-chair (armchair on wheels). It is a long time since he has been able to walk or sit in a regular wheelchair and, although he is able to weight bear to an extent sometimes, he is more or less bedridden now. I am becoming used to what is still a bit of a shock.

Yesterday, I visited in the late afternoon (something that I had intended to do more regularly – famous last words). He was in bed, looking very comfortable and content. I fed him his vitamised dinner which he gobbled, and some chocolate that I had brought with me. At one point he raised his hands underneath the blanket and they kept getting in the way of the spoon.

Me: Why are you doing that with your hands, Ants?

Anthony: Because I lost them five days ago.

Me: Oh! When did you find them again?

Anthony: Last night.

Me: Where were they?

Anthony: At the nun’s place.

Me: You mean Sister R?

Anthony: Yes.

Me: She’s amazing isn’t she.

Anthony: Wonderful.

We aren’t Catholic but we do have a very good friend who is a nun and she has blessed Anthony on several occasions over the years, so I put two and two together. The way Anthony’s memory works now fascinates me; it is fragmented and peculiar but sometimes wonderfully symbolic.

At around 6pm, he began to drift into sleep and, as I stroked his head, I felt a lurch of bittersweet emotion. I whispered goodbye and kissed him, thinking he was asleep.

Me: You are the most beautiful man in the world, Ants.

Anthony (murmuring): I know.

 

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Doing it

I bumped into some relatives today at our local, rural, shop and they said they had intended to go and see Anthony today, but it was too late in the day. It was raining relentlessly so I admitted that I, too, hadn’t gone into town to see Anthony but that Ming was doing it.

Doing it?

Why did I describe my visits to Anthony as a job that needed to be done? Why didn’t I say, “Ming is visiting Ants today”? instead of “Ming is doing it today.”

I am so embarrassed that I expressed myself this way because for all of these years I have felt and believed that the romantic love I share with Anthony would somehow sustain us. In fact, as Ming often points out, Anthony is now mostly lost in his world of Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. Yesterday, for example, Anthony was mostly asleep during my 2-hour visit and this is often the case.

Perhaps love is not simply a feeling but also a decision. For me, this realisation has made all the difference recently because in deciding to love someone, that ‘do it’ decision, is an absolute in the face of multiple contingencies.

Do it.

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8. Carrot juice

Several years ago Anthony and I embarked on a carrot juice diet and we went through two juicers (warranteed and replaced) in our quest for better health. We did this for around two months until our skin took on a rather strange, yellowish hue and Anthony developed arthritic pain. At the time, I did a bit of research and discovered that an overabundance of carrots can actually be harmful so we gladly quit the carrot juice and laughed ourselves silly about what idiots we’d been.

Looking back to that time, I now think that perhaps Anthony was showing signs of the Parkinson’s Disease Dementia that has now pretty much paralysed him, physically and cognitively. I guess I was trying desperately to find a solution?

I am a great fan of cold-pressed juice but I also know that it takes a hell of a lot of carrots to make a single glass of this elixir and nobody in their right mind would ever eat that many carrots in a single day. Nowadays I make juice with the outer lettuce leaves most people throw away, a single carrot, an apple, and orange, and a bit of ginger. This quest for health has consumed me lately due to my recent battle with mycoplasma pneumonia; I need to be well again and it has taken so long to get better. The hospital doctor did actually include (in his written report) my suggestion that my illness might have something to do with grief but, in the end, that was dismissed, the evidence of the mycoplasma bacteria was found, and I was given mycoplasma-specific antibiotics.

Anyway, back to carrot juice; once I was out of hospital I decided to go on a health kick. I’d lost five kilos so fast that my arms were (and still are) wasted and (hilariously for Ming) still stick-like. The other day, I reminded Anthony of our carrot juice adventure and he smiled. He remembered!

Anthony: But it’s good now isn’t it?

Me: Yes.

Anthony: I prefer chocolate.

 

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6. The most beautiful word: Yes

“Could you just put that skeleton onto the hose?”

“You are always doubling and tripling and doubling.”

“There he is – that little bastard – see? In the corner. With the horse nose.”

“I don’t want to be in this school anymore.”

“This is the most wonderful pub!”

“The dogs need to be let out. Do it gently with the first ones. We have too many.”

“Does the congregation know that you found the bodies?”

“It was a pirate ship and those kids kidnapped me again.”

“See this thing? [often his knee rug]. “Can you loop it around these things?” [his hands.] “Yes, good, that will stop the rain from getting into the crevices.”

The above are just a few sample statements made by Anthony over the last several years. There is a context to some of these statements which I will elaborate on later in this book, but most are uttered spontaneously and sometimes with what seems a subdued desperation.

If you are caring for/or about someone with Dementia who is close to you – a spouse, parent, friend – it can be extremely difficult to know how to respond. For example, it can be very tempting to counter what seems like nonsense with logic, like:

There are no bodies, or a pirate ship. It’s not even raining! We only have two dogs, the hose is fine, we’re not in a pub or a school – we are in a nursing home! Who are these kids you keep talking about? What the hell are you talking about? You are paranoid, you are delusional and I can’t cope with this nonsense anymore. Please, Ants; this is so unfair on me. Pull yourself together!

I’ve highlighted the above to emphasise my frustrations over the years with Anthony’s gradual transition into the confusion of Dementia. Of course, I am not proud of my impatience with him but, early on – especially during the last year Anthony lived at home and the first year of the nursing home – my moodiness was acrobatic and just as unpredictable as his confusion.

The only thing that remained a certainty for us during these tumultuous times was our inviolable love for each other. Anthony’s reluctance to marry me all those years ago stemmed from his anxiety about the age difference (23 years). He didn’t want to burden me with his old age. I said I didn’t care but for some reason, despite my nursing background and my PhD research about Alzheimer’s Disease, I never once considered that one day Anthony would not only be old, but also very sick.

We were married in 1993 and at that time Anthony was fit, robust and full of energy – a passionate dairy farmer. Neither of us could have anticipated that in the first year of Ming’s life, Anthony would succumb to kidney cancer. I can remember taking baby Ming into the hospital to see Ants in between two surgeries, the first to remove a tumour from his left kidney, and the second to remove the whole kidney. Our tears then were not just about the trauma experienced and the idea of cancer, they were also about Anthony being advised not to ride a motorbike anymore.

Anthony was only 58 back then (the same age I am now) and he loved riding motorbikes. Dairy farmers don’t have much time for hobbies, but this was his and, in retrospect, I now see that this would have come as a terrible blow for Anthony. The cancerous kidney was gone, yes, but this experience altered things in a forever way.

Ming had his first ever asthma attack in that hospital room. My mother took him into her arms while I rushed to find a nebuliser and Ventolin for Ming.

Later that week we brought Anthony home – wan, pale, diminished, and so weak. But he soon got better and went back to milking the cows, enjoying being a father, and loving me with a fervour that devastated me because I could already see the writing on the wall. I’m not a scientist or a psychologist but I do believe that our kidney cancer year somehow made Anthony vulnerable to the many illnesses he has contracted since then.

Now, nearly two decades later, Anthony often reassures me that he is getting better.

Me: YES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lonely

I used to brag to people that I wasn’t lonely, that I was comfortable with being alone, and comfortable with my own company. But, since Anthony has been in the nursing home – nearly six years now – I have experienced such a piercing loneliness, and a longing for him to be home again (impossible) that sometimes I want to howl like an abandoned, injured animal. We are on 100 acres of farmland so, with no close neighbours, sometimes I do howl. I try very hard not to do this in front of Ming but sometimes it just happens – the uninhibited grief, the howl of longing for the impossibility of Anthony coming back home, the absolute misery of our situation.

On the other hand, I am not willing to give in to this kind of despair and I am determined to continue to make myself at home in Anthony’s nursing home room.

I would never want him to be as lonely as I am.

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Purpose

I have a new sense of purpose, having returned from the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney. Ming and I delivered a talk entitled “Dementia Dialogues” in which we described our experience of Anthony’s Dementia. I have already written about this on Facebook so will not repeat myself here.

The conference experience was both fascinating and enriching with an eclectic mix of scientific and experiential approaches to happiness. Kindness (both to others and ourselves), generosity and gratitude were recurring themes and Ming and I learned so much.

One of the best outcomes for me was the sense of purpose I now have in terms of writing the book I have been trying to write for so long, but didn’t know where to start. In preparing notes for our talk, I had unwittingly created a loose framework for this book and, since I only had time to convey some of the points Ming and I wanted to make, those notes are a great incentive.

My plan is to write a short-ish book, with very short, easily digestible chapters, about the strange and wonderful conversations I share with Anthony, Ming, carers, relatives and friends. In this sense I think that the title “Dementia Dialogues” will work and I plan to pitch it to Penguin publishers.

Instead of a rather vague sense of purpose, I now think I have something more concrete and this blog is a great platform from which to test my ideas. I’ll try to limit chapter drafts to 500 words and post on the blog from July 1st – hopefully two per week.

Several weeks ago, I told Anthony I wanted to write a book about him and he said “No”. When I asked why, he said something so interesting, but so poignant, that I was taken aback.

“Because I don’t exist,” he answered, cryptically.

At the time, I reassured him, of course, but I didn’t have that sense of purpose I have now; I didn’t have the right words, even for myself.

You do exist, Ants, and our ongoing story is my purpose.

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Magnificent

I am spending as much time with Anthony as possible before Ming and I go to Sydney for five days. Yes, anyone would think we were going to the moon for a year but I do worry, mainly because I was unable to visit Anthony for so long when I was in hospital. I know my mother will visit him every day (she is absolutely wonderful) but there is something quite visceral about the way he misses me that has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition.

It is more to do with the passing of time; the longer the gaps between my visits, the more he suffers the unspoken pain of simply missing me – just my presence.

Today, I stayed with Anthony for hours, feeding him his lunch in the common dining room where he often is now; taking him back to his room to half-watch Dr Phil, Master Chef and Judge Judy; him listening speechlessly to the rapid pace of the conversation I had with my mother when she visited; looking bewildered as I left, until I promised to bring more chocolate.

At one point (it was probably one of Judge Judy’s calmer moments), I said, “This is great, isn’t it, Ants.” I had purposefully put my hand between both of his, then tucked them under his knee rug.

“Magnificent” he said.

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Happiness

In just over a week, Ming and I are off to Sydney to speak at a conference. Check out the link!

http://www.happinessanditscauses.com.au/

The title of our talk is – yes, you guessed it – “Dementia Dialogues”. I am hoping to convince the audience that it is still sometimes possible to derive, and give, great joy within the context of Dementia. Ming and I are simply going to cite a few examples of the funny and poignant conversations we share with Anthony. We only have a 15-minute slot, so our talk has to be succinct, a bit like a TED talk I guess.

I emphasised the word “sometimes” above because I am well aware that our own experience of Anthony’s Dementia is not necessarily like other people’s and I recognise how lucky we are to have a husband/father who is so resilient. The other day, when I got to the nursing home earlier than usual, and was able to feed Anthony his breakfast in bed, I asked him if he was comfortable and he whispered a booming “EXTREMELY!”

Anthony’s sanguine nature is a wonderful ‘plus’ when it comes to Dementia but every single person who has Dementia is just as individual as those of us without Dementia. Now that I am involved in support groups for carers, I have heard a fair few horror stories and I do remember our own horror story before Anthony’s admission to the nursing home. So I guess another point I want to emphasise in our conference talk is that the idea of placing a loved one in a nursing home needn’t be a tragedy.

I haven’t blogged for so long that now I’m rambling – ha! It’s good to get the words out. Now I just have to prepare for the conference – yikes!

 

 

 

 

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The dream

I have various versions of the same┬ádream about once a week. It’s always some sort of party, or wedding, or get-together but the venues change from dream to dream. The ‘characters’ in these dreams usually include old friends, close relatives and always Ming, but he is often either a baby or child.

In each of these weekly dreams, Anthony is extremely incapacitated and in a wheelchair; the destination is hours away from the safety of the nursing home; and it’s only when we get there that I realise I have forgotten his medications for Parkinson’s Disease (the timing of which is vital).

So, in each of the dreams, I am either searching my handbag for a stray pill, or trying to decide whether to drive all the way back to the nursing home. I am totally panicked and trying to figure out who can help me get Anthony from his wheelchair out to the car, but people are milling around him, happy to see him but concerned about him being in a wheelchair etc.

Because this is a dream I am, of course, leaping tall buildings and smashing windows and unlocking safes in my frantic search for Anthony’s pills – all to no avail. So I get back to the party, or whatever it is, and am relieved to see that Ants isn’t slumped too badly in his wheelchair. I rush to him and kneel, apologising for forgetting his medications and all of a sudden he gets up and is fine – robust, loud, laughing and hugging me as if the whole thing was some sort of bizarre practical joke. The relief that washes over me in the dream is so wonderful that it wakes me up.

So, when I wake up, it takes me about a minute to get my bearings and realise it was a dream but it never makes me sad. Instead, this recurring dream gives me enormous joy because it reminds me in so many ways how fantastic our life together has been.

I hope I get that dream again tonight.

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