Saturday, January 28, 2012

Charlie Bear arrives

Since driving out to Wisconsin with my brother Matt the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I haven't had much to say on my blog. The purpose of our visit was to go visit my mother, Agnes, whose condition with Alzheimer's disease was deteriorating.

The thought of losing my mother, so soon after the passing of my father, has made it hard to face the keyboard. I really haven't wanted to write much. If you've lost a parent, you probably know what I mean.

My mother's doctors in Wisconsin told my sister Heidi, who lives in Neenah, close to the facility where my mother resides, that a series of small strokes had set her health back. More importantly, they seemed to suggest a larger stroke that could suddenly end her life was on the horizon. My siblings were advised that if we wanted to come and say our goodbyes to her, it was prudent to do so sooner than later.

I had been planning on making the long drive to Wisconsin over my semester break. But Matt and I decided not wait. It was a bittersweet trip. We passed through a howling midwestern rainstorm that lasted close to eight hours. Then, just as it was clearing, we managed to hit Chicago right at the 5 p.m. rush hour. It took us nearly three hours to drive out of the city. The task itself was depressing enough. But when the weather and traffic turned a 15-hour drive into something closer to 20, we both wondered why we'd made the effort.

I had spoken to my mother on the telephone about once a week before our trip at Thanksgiving. With each successive call, I seemed to slip farther and farther away from her mind. With some prompting, she eventually could be made to remember I was her oldest son, Chuck, who lived back in Pennsylvania. But talking to her in the present was like trying to talk to someone through a closed door who was still half-asleep, dreaming.

While I was with her in Wisconsin, I mostly sat and held her hand or scratched her scalp, which she loved. I suspect that was something my father must have done for her over the last five years as she started slipping away from us. It occurred to all of my siblings, after my father was stricken with lymphoma in June, just how nurturing and renewing his attentive care for her had been over the past few years of their marriage.

Thanksgiving itself was a glorious meal attended by six of my siblings, including my sister Gretchen who drove from Colorado for the occasion with six of her seven children. My mom was not able to engage in the table's lively conversation, and it was hard not to note that it was the first Thanksgiving in 60 years she did not share the holiday meal with her husband.

When it came time to say goodbye to her, at 6 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I stole into her bedroom and kissed her goodbye, uncertain whether I would ever see her again. She was awake, as was my sister, Marianna, who shared the bed with her to comfort her and reassure her if she woke up in the middle of the night.

My mother was awake and she smiled up at me when I kissed her forehead. "Goodbye, Mom," I told her. "Matt and I are leaving now. You are a great mother, the best in the whole world! I love you!"

She suffered my embrace and said to me, "I know" and then laughed. Then Matt said his farewells and we were soon on the road again, this time in much better driving conditions.

In the two months since then, my mother's health has improved significantly. The large stroke we feared never came. Several of my sisters have been out to visit with her. I hope to go back in the spring, when my semester has ended.

But in the meantime, my sister Trudy had an idea that seemed divinely inspired. Taking some of my dad's old flannel shirts, she knitted a teddy bear for her and stuffed it with all of her love and the scent of my dad. She pinned a picture of my father to the bear and stitched a small, red heart on the bear's foot with a personal message: "I love Ag" it reads.

My siblings have spend the last week or so coming up with names for the bear..... and trying to help Trudy think of a name for her new "business." We decided she could make a living stitching these family mementos out of the clothing of departed loved ones. The best suggestion any of us came up with was "Remem-bear" but, alas, Trudy's early research revealed some enterprising soul had already marketed that name with the same sweet intentions: making teddy bears out of the used clothing of people who have passed on.

Trudy's "Charlie Bear" package arrived yesterday. Heidi smartly took her camera with her to document its arrival. This was her report to the rest of us:

The wonderful bear that Trudy made for Mom out of one of Dad’s shirts arrived and I brought it to Mom this afternoon.

It was a HUGE HIT!!!!!

She immediately tucked him into the crook of her arm like a baby, patted his little bottom and snuggled him in right away. Mom wouldn’t put him down and was thrilled with each detail like the “I love Ag” embroidered on his foot, the picture of Dad hanging from the ribbon around his neck and the little button eyes! She keeps kissing his cute black nose and kissing his adorable face.

When I read the note that Trudy sent with it, Brandy (one of the aids) started to cry. She wants one for her Grandmother. Howie called the bear “Nifty” and later at dinner Mom was looking at the photo of Dad and she said “He sure is a good looking guy.”

Mom came home with me for a sleepover and she insisted on bringing Charlie Bear with her. She held him all through dinner – which she ate 100% independently even while holding on to him – and all through the movie we watched afterwards. Right now she’s sleeping peacefully, snuggling in to her new best pal.

The best parts of our lives are comprised of such simple thoughts and gifts as my sister made for my mother.

We are all so blessed to be part of this family, the family of man.

Me and Mom, at Heidi's house in Neenah, WI, the day before Thanksgiving.