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Sometimes in the morning, I wake up and for a brief time the world is as I once knew it; a world completed by your presence.
Reality seeps in and I acknowledge the fact that you’re gone.
I have to let you know that not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about you in some respect. As the song says, there’s always something there to remind me.
It might be the sound of your name, or an unannounced summer thunderstorm or maybe the melody of Danny Boy on Saint Patrick’s Day; things too numerous to mention here. Unexpected things come along as well.
I was working south of Boston one weekend and took 93 South out of the city headed towards Marshfield.
I passed a road sign on Route 139 that read: Nantasket Beach.
I thought about a small picture I have of you from that innocent and healthy time in your life that found you on that beach.
I can hear your laughter and see your smile.
Your soul was a happy one then, as I pray it is now.
I only wish that you had seen more of those sunny days.
The Bleeding Hearts and Columbine we planted for you are thriving in the garden and serve as a gentle reminder that in many ways, you’re still here with us. And you are.
Forgetting you is just not an option.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριςτὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Ten years ago, the world as I’d previously known it began crumbling before my very eyes. With Alzheimer’s disease slowly sinking its insidious teeth into the flesh of two of the most important people in my life, I could barely hang on.
My interpretation of the world surrounding me was one of suffocation and predicated horror as I watched two innocent lives wither away; their “golden” years sucked into an invisible vortex of utter blackness.
There would be no vacations for them; no candlelight dinners, anniversaries, holidays, spontaneous I-love-you’s and oddly enough no tears for what ultimately should have been.
The blackboards of their lives had been virtually erased, their accumulated memories falling away like the New England autumn leaves my mother so loved.
Back then, I was filled with bitterness like I’d never known.
I was mad at everyone: God, the mailman, the guy that pumped my gas, the moon and the stars, my girls, my wife and a life that was spiraling out of control.
I was mad at the incomprehensibility and odds of the total clusterfuck I was in.
Close friends knew I was not doing well.
Advice was offered and thrown away, unused and scattered like junk mail.
One day, someone close to me said, “He’s trying to teach you something. Maybe you should listen.”
They were pointing upwards towards the heavens when they said it.
After a particularly heart-shattering day I found myself once again mentally “on the ropes”.
I recall having a pen in my hand. I looked at it, scratched my head and began writing. There was no planning on my part, it just kind of happened.
Thousands of words and feelings later I looked up.
Over two hours of my soul were permanently on paper and I felt good.
The inner voices were gone and the world was quiet.
I was given a way out of this thing.
But, how do you spell “sacred moment”?
Maybe He was trying to teach me something after all; I just had to discover it on my own.
Through my writing I was doing something that my mom and dad could no longer do; I was learning how to remember them.
Paradox is occasionally a bittersweet thing.
At least I like to think of it in that way.
I realized something unsettling and bit surprising after the last visit with my father.
I’m having some difficulty in loving what’s left of him.
Don’t get me wrong, I hold his worn and trembling hands, maybe rub his back if the situation allows but inside I feel almost nothing. And it bothers me, and hurts the soul.
Everything I loved about my father was on the inside – I understand that, but in some ways, I feel hypocritical and shallow for going through motions that seemingly resemble love. But for now, I love the “memory” of him.
I used to love the way he signed his name: Walter Murphy – clear, precise, orderly; bold black hand-written lines that typified his organizational mind, his once brilliant mind.
Even when my mother would guilt him into making a tossed salad for a camp cook-out, you could tell by the way it was put together that my father had made it.
I love the fact that he was a man that loved his family passionately, though we were only shown glimpses of that paternal love.
He used to laugh so hard sometimes that tears would trickle down his cheeks, affecting my mother in such a way that she would usually pee her pants from watching him laugh. They were made for each other, I think.
Living inside a disease like Alzheimer’s has as many advantages as disadvantages; life goes on and you subconsciously forget about the pain.
But like the snow in the winter and the falling leaves of autumn, time doesn’t forget.
It taps you on the shoulder in subtle ways, maybe to help us remember what once was.
Maybe I’ll see you in my dreams tonight . . .
It was a cold winter night many years ago that I went out to see my Dad who was still living at home by himself. My mother had been moved over a year earlier and my father was still far from ready for assisted living.
Back then, I would drive to the house 5 to 6 days a week to check up on him.
I pulled into the driveway that night and saw that the house was in total darkness save for a small light in the kitchen. I could see my father inside, his shadow gliding back and forth like a disembodied entity.
His eccentricities were increasingly more pronounced and peculiar by the day so the sight of him pacing didn’t alarm me…much.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the back door was that he had his coat on.
“And where are you going?” I said, smiling.
“Nowhere,” he laughed, “just felt like putting my coat on, is all.”
The words drifted out of his mouth in little puffs of frost.
The chill then hit me like a speeding freight train; his heat was off.
I went into the dining room and looked at the thermostat.
He’d pushed it all the way up praying for a bit of relief.
Holy Jesus on a Cross, I thought, he’s freezing and I’m the world’s biggest schmuck.
Long story short, he was out of heating oil.
I immediately called the oil company (open 24/7 during winter, thank God) and told them what happened. They assured me they would be there within the hour, which they were.
I made my father some hot tea as we sat waiting for Mr. Heat to arrive.
A full tank of oil and a newly lit pilot light later and heat began rising out of the previously icy baseboards.
Once my brain thawed, all the ‘what ifs’ started racing an Indy 500 inside my head.
What if I hadn’t stopped out tonight?
What if he’d left the house in search of warmth and got lost?
I knew it wasn’t my fault but it was my responsibility and I felt in a small way that I had failed him.
Therein lies the paradox that is Alzheimer’s; caregivers feel all the intense guilt and sense of loss that their loved one will never be aware of.
Riddled with shame, I decided to stay a bit longer than usual.
I knew he’d had no supper due to the ‘house turned igloo’ so I offered to make him something to eat, which he politely declined (like I knew he would).
He sat in the warm den and watched TV while I scrambled some eggs and made some toast.
He came into the kitchen sniffing and said, “Mmm, that smells good.”
“Want some?” I asked.
After his second helping of eggs he looked at me and said, “That was really good. I was starving.”
I smiled and said, “I know, Dad.”
It’s ancient water under the bridge but I still think about that night and feel that pang of shame. This was the guy that worked every stinking day of his life so I could have clothes, a nice baseball glove and cleats (like all the other kids), food on the table, heat in the winter; all the necessities of life and more.
He made sure I never knew the meaning of the word ‘want’.
I drove home that night waiting for that Aha! moment that would hopefully make some sense out of what had just happened.
If the moment came, I’d sadly missed it.
While the memory of that night remains a self-imposed penance, I take comfort in knowing I was able to make his night a bit warmer than the freezing world around him.
I hope that night left him feeling more than warmth.
I pray he felt love.
I was on my way to a gig in Groton, Ct. when the skies suddenly opened up and the rains fell.
I had just left the Saint Francis Home after seeing my mother for what I instinctively knew to be the very last time.
She was not doing well.
As the downpour pelted the roof of the truck I somehow understood that my mother had just died, an ominous GodWink.
My cell phone rang seconds after the thought came to me.
It was my sister, Maureen, calling to say that indeed our mother’s long journey was finally over. Though the world seems a bit less vibrant to me now that she’s finally gone, her shattered life is once again pure and unmarred by the tangles and plaques that grew in her brain like the weeds in some long forgotten garden. I’ve come to realize that she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, it had her.About a year ago, I was visiting her at Saint Francis, her home for the past five years. At that time, basic verbal communication had all but ceased.
Anything that she said back then came out in short blips and stutters; she was now fairly adept at talking ragtime. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to receive a small miracle.
I bent down to kiss her forehead before leaving and I said, “I love you.”
Her bright blue eyes steadily held my gaze and prompted me to ask, “Do you love me?”
At that moment, the hands of God must have touched my mother and enabled her to speak because she clearly whispered, “You know I do.”
The surging waves of emotion filled my longing soul and I was unable to stop the flow of tears.
Those four simple words were a moment of crystalline clarity for her as she pierced the vapid fog of dementia giving me a gift I’d waited for, for so long. It was the perfect justification that love is stronger than all the diseases in the world, combined.
Here in the quiet chambers of my heart I’ve reserved a special place for my Mom. After all, she was the one that taught me what love was really all about. And though I’m profoundly sad to lose her, I’m eternally greatful that she found her wings. She is finally home.
When we were father and son, the living was easy
More for me than it was for you, I’ve no doubt
Life changes and some boys grow into good men
while others mysteriously transform into wildfires; uncontrollable and dangerous but strangely beautiful, leaving in their paths of despair, black and charred earth
But sometimes, from that black ashen ground springs new life, emerald green, capable and bursting with hope
When we were father and son, little did we both know just how unprepared we were for the roads that lie ahead of us
But somewhere along the way we found the wisdom and grace to simply take care of one another, you and me
And we moved mountains, you and I
When we were father and son
Sometimes when I look back at my life, certain times strike me as profoundly significant. Time and distance allows for this perspective although the memory is seen through a flowing gossamer curtain.
So it is with life and ironically, so it is with the writing of it.
I’ve thought about one particular night with a curiosity that won’t allow me to let it go.
I wonder if the final writing of the words will somehow change my point of view.
It was many years ago, if I were to hazard a guess I’d say 40 years.
We were staying in a beach house on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.
Never having stayed right on the beach, I was fascinated by the sheer mystery of it.
It was a modest house, a glorified camp actually, adorned with more cliché knickknacks associated with the Cape than you could ever possibly dream about.
There were signature clam shell ashtrays on every table, barnacled frames on pictures and a sign in the bathroom that read: In the land of sun and fun, we never flush for number one!
A steady sea breeze crept its way through every open window subtly scenting the entire house with a moist brackish tinge.
I don’t remember much of the vacation itself but I vividly recall the night of the storm.
I was roused from a deep sleep by a thwack of thunder and a shimmer of light.
Jumping from my bed, I headed towards the screened-in front porch that looked out over the bay.
Sitting in the front window was my mother.
She loved storms and in her way taught me to love their awesome beauty.
She saw me standing in the doorway and motioned for me to sit.
After a few minutes she said, “It’s beautiful. Isn’t it?”
In the dark of the porch I could see she was smiling.
I said, “Yeah,” as I watched the wide expanse of the beach light up like someone was flipping a light switch.
There was a clap of thunder and the skies lit up as I saw a lone seagull flying underneath the bruised thunderheads; fearless, I thought.
It was only seconds later that I noticed a second gull appear out of nowhere.
We watched the storm in silence, my mom and I, trapped in our own thoughts.
I thought about my twin sister sleeping soundly a few rooms away and had an epiphany of sorts. The storm seemed an apt and epic metaphor to our birth and subsequent adoption.
I’ve never told her about the storm but I think she’ll understand where it is that I’m calling from.
Like the two gulls I saw nearly 40 years ago, my sister and I have since flown through many a storm.
It seems somewhat bittersweet that my mom was teaching me about life even then.
And I think I now have a better understanding as to why she so loved storms.
I’ve waited over 8 years to write this.
My mind just wouldn’t let me do it I guess.
Maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be.
I don’t remember the exact day we physically moved my mother out of the house but I remember how blue the sky was that day.
It was a brutally beautiful day and one that still haunts me emotionally.
My mother never saw it coming, I’m convinced of that.
To this day, it still feels like I was selling her soul to Satan; a sale that desperately needed to happen, for her sake and my father’s as well.
I told myself it was for her safety, her best interest, the fact that my father could no longer watch over and care for her, any reason that would validate my personal termination of her current residence.
My sister and I had previously moved many of her belongings to her room in the waiting facility; the only thing left to move was my mother.
Getting her into the car was no problem, bringing her into the facility was even easier. But leaving her there and walking out the auto-locking door would be a very difficult thing to do.
And God, it was.
Through all this, I felt like Judas Iscariot; you will deny me three times.
I felt I’d denied my mother three to the third power.
This is what it ‘felt’ like not what it actually was.
I see it now for what it was but it felt so different back then.
We brought my mother out to the car and told her we were taking her ‘someplace nice’, another white lie spilled out on the bare ground like an unwanted bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry wine.
When we arrived caregivers and staff were waiting for us with open arms.
We checked out my mother’s room and made sure she was settled before we approached the staff and asked, “What’s next?”
“Just leave,” they said, “Call us in three days. She’ll be fine.”
This is it?
How can I just turn around and walk away?
How can I deny her?
I can’t just walk away.
“Go. Don’t worry.”
Yeah, right, I thought; easy for you to say.
As we were turning to leave I heard my mother saying, “Wait! Where are you going? Don’t leave me here!”
And, we did.
To this day, I still don’t quite know how, but we did.
My father, sister and I walked through the self-locking door and out into the warm sunshine of the free world.
I was cracking inside but felt the need to hide it while my father and sister broke down.
My sister would be alright, she was a long time R.N. used to dealing with intense emotional turmoil.
My dad was another story.
I looked at him and realized he was the farthest thing from a happy ending that I’d ever seen.
And my heart went out to him.
I went to embrace him but his Irish bravado violently pushed me away.
In my mind, for all intents and purposes, he’d just said his last goodbye to a wife of almost 50 years.
Can it get much sadder than that?
Yes, it can.
We drove away lost in our own private asylums of thought; my dad staring thoughtlessly out the window, my sister wondering whether my mother would be alright and me wondering why—period.
My sister and I had previously planned on making my father’s afternoon a light one with a BBQ at my house afterwards.
Dad needed a few beers and some food to get ‘right’ and I was just the guy to do it.
I’ve no doubt my father wanted a cold one as much as I did.
My thinking was indeed correct.
We got to my house and immediately got my father situated on our deck with a cold brew and some munchies. That was most important.
He seemed to relax almost immediately.
The worst was over . . . for now.
I walked into the kitchen as my wife’s eyes began to examine me.
She said, “Are you okay?”
My eyes filled up and I shook my head ‘no’.
She held me tightly as the stress, pain and profound sadness of the day flowed out of me; stormy oceans of regret pounding the waiting and not surprisingly able shoulders of my wife.
My life suddenly felt so wrong and there was nothing I could do to stop the feeling.
I couldn’t solve a complicated puzzle when there were no pieces to arrange, if that makes any logical sense.
My wife said, “Get a beer, start the grill and cook. Forget about it for now. Today is over.”
I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something bigger than all of us happening here.
Maybe it’s better I never quite figured it out.
I lit the grill and then my cigar and let my inimical thoughts drift up and away in the ethereal clouds of smoke.
Had I known then how many storms were to rain down on my life, this blog may have never been.
Maybe there’s something to be said about guardian angels.
Lord knows, I’m married to one.
It was a few months after the Easter from hell that it happened.
My mother had seriously declined in both sense and sensibility and I was teetering on an emotional tightrope that violently shook each time the phone would ring.
Back then, I had an uncanny awareness; a vague and aching premonitory sense that told me it was her calling.
The steadily glowing red eye on the diabolical caller ID box made me mutter,
“Shit. What now?”
Those days are long gone but they are forever burned into my psyche.
It happened one innocuous Sunday morning in July.
I learned from a neighbor that my mother had waltzed out of the house, stood on the sidewalk out front and began waving at all the cars that passed by.
It was odd, obviously, but for the most part, not too dangerous; that was until a car stopped and the driver rolled down the window.
“Are you okay? Do you need some help?” the driver asked.
“Yes,” my mother replied, “I need to get to a garage because my car won’t start.” she said, pointing to the dark blue Ford Taurus sitting in the driveway.
After riding with my mother for five minutes, it was evident to the woman driving that my mom wasn’t “quite right”.
She turned the car around and headed back towards the house when my mother asked, “Where are you taking me?” I need to get to a garage!”
The woman kindly said, “I’m taking you home.”
She pulled into the driveway and walked my mother to the door and knocked.
My father, who had been in the den reading the Sunday paper, answered the door.
“I’ve brought your wife back. This is your wife, yes?”
“Oh, thank you, yes,” my father said, somewhat perplexed.
At the time, my father was getting as confused as my mother.
I never took notice because of the intense progression of Alzheimer’s in my mother.
To this day, the angel that brought my mother home remains unknown to me.
Just knowing she’d saved my mother from God knows what fate was a note of thanks. But along with bringing back my mother, the angel also dropped the straw that would break the camel’s back.
One month later, my sister and I would move her to a place where wandering was no longer an option and “home” was just another four letter word that she would desperately try to hold onto until the day she died.