Cindy is the author of The Unbridled Series of books: Hot Coco, Deadly.com, and, her latest, Against the Ropes. Cindy says of herself and her work:
For twenty-six years my life whirled around a song and a dance: I was a professional dancer/choreographer for most of my adult life and never gave much thought to a writing career until 2005. Don’t ask me what happened, but suddenly I felt drawn to my computer to write about things I have experienced (greatly exaggerated upon of course) with my husband’s Thoroughbreds and happenings at the racetrack.
In her guest post today, Cindy speaks to us through the voice of one of her characters. She shares the trauma of living with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Cindy’s website is http://cindymcwriter.com/.
MEMORIES OF PRESQUE ISLE
It is late fall. I have never visited the beaches of Presque Isle this late in the year, after the leaves have abandoned the trees, and their sinewy branches reach toward the grey skies like dark skeletons. The waves crash into the shore, as the seagulls dip and dive over the vast water of Lake Erie. I loved this place growing up. I still love this place—almost as much as my mother loved it. There is something mysterious about Lake Erie, especially standing here among the silent beaches, void of children’s laughter, lifeguards blowing whistles, and parents calling after their youngsters to stay within a certain distance of the shore. It is surreal. It calls to me.
My name is Jen Fleming, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Eric West suggested a trip to Erie, Pennsylvania to visit the wineries, stay at a lovely Bed & Breakfast, and walk the beaches of Presque Isle during the off-season. Eric is an imposing man. His life at Westwood Thoroughbred Farm leaves him little time for such getaways. He is also a very observant and caring man, and I have no doubt he could see my melancholy. He wrapped his arms around me in my office at the racetrack where I am a nurse, and whispered in my ear, “A trip through Pennsylvania wine country and a walk on the beach should perk you right up.” Hmmm, as a matter of fact just the suggestion was enough to perk me up. I hugged him tightly swallowed up by his warmth and sensitivity to my needs.
We arrived in Presque Isle Saturday morning. I wasn’t prepared for the power it would have over me, the emotions that would coil through me, when I realized that my mother would never again see the lake, walk the shores, or build sand castles with her grandchildren. You see my mother is eighty and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
I can still see my brothers and me jumping the waves, and running to the old battered blankets lying in the sand that were designated for the lake. My mother would tell us about her childhood. She used to come to the lake every year and spend several weeks with her cousins who lived in Erie. She would tell us how they swam in the lake until their lips would turn blue from the chill. She has no recollection of her cousins now. She barely recognizes me or my brother when we go to visit her at the nursing home facility once a week. My mother never accepted the death of my father seven years ago. And I watched helplessly as she fell farther and farther into the abyss of confusion and denial. My older brother and I tried to get her involved in church activities or community service projects. The answer was always the same: “No, I don’t care to do that.” My mother was always a rather standoffish person. She didn’t have many friends—my father was her world.
As time went on she became more and more reclusive and aloof and confused. My life is crazy and my brother’s work schedule is nuts. We did our very best, but she was so very obstinate. Finally my brother, who lives next door to my mother, would call me with frantic stories of finding my mother in the yard looking for my father. Her hairdressers and manicurists would contact me as well to inform me of her confusion, and their concern for her driving. I had to take her car keys—she was furious. I wanted to keep her in her own home as long as possible, but it was becoming impossible. She hated the day nurses we hired to care for her—she only became more agitated and hard to deal with. My brother insisted that she needed more care than we could provide. He was right, only I felt that I had failed her on some level, that I hadn’t done enough to keep her mind healthy.
The day we took her to the nursing facility was one of the worse days of my life. No matter how lovely the facility or how wonderful the staff, a daughter’s place is in the guilt and the guilt consumed me. I would visit mom two and three times a week only to face an angry woman who couldn’t remember or focus on anything. She would insist that I call her dad and tell him where to come pick her up. She was worried that she would be late for school. She wanted to know why her mother hadn’t called in days. I was beside myself at how to respond. At the end of my visits she would chase me to my car screaming, “You get me out of here, Jennifer! You’re heartless!” The staff would have to gently subdue her. It was horrible to say the least.
Finally the big melt-down happened. I had gone to New York with some girlfriends to see some shows and take in the city. My brother assured me that all would be fine while I was gone, and that I really needed time away. Mom was very rough on me, and yet kind to my brother when he visited. The very first night that I was away the nursing home called—mom was out of control—hallucinatory. They had moved her to a psych ward at a nearby hospital for counseling and medication adjustments. I was horrified. The guilt welled inside me like a swollen spitting volcano. They said she had been transported by ambulance. My mother had never been in an ambulance or in a hospital for that matter—I could only imagine how frightened and confused she was by it all, and my guilt ripped viciously at me once more. And then the second phone call came—my brother had had a heart attack. I thought I would split in half with angst.
When I returned from New York I visited my brother who was doing just fine—he would make a full recovery. Thank you, Lord. It was time to visit mom—alone. I met with her counselor in his office for an hour and a half before being escorted into the psych ward. Her counselor stayed for the visit as a mediator. I was relieved. Overall our visit was pleasant—the counselor saw to that. When it was time for me to leave she became agitated, but the counselor insisted that she remain in the room until the nurse came for her—I didn’t think that would work. It didn’t. As we approached the nurse’s station I could hear her calling my name. I turned to find her pushing her walker down the hall calling out to me, “Jennifer! You come back here! You take me home right now!” Anxiety churned inside me. I turned to the counselor and asked, “What do I do now?” He simply said, “It’s time for you to leave.” He took me by the arm and shoved me into a supply closet. Seriously? When I turned, I came face-to-face with a nurse who seemed very accustomed to the sight. Moments later, the counselor joined me in the closet. Really? Smiling he waved at me, “This way.” I followed him to the other side of the closet to a door that led into another part of the hospital, and back to his office where we talked for an hour more.
My mother stayed in the ward for one week. They completely changed her meds and I was informed by her counselor that I was a “trigger”. I filled her with the need to go home. I was told that I should only visit once a week and never alone—I should visit with my brother. Oh yeah, that was a huge guilt trip for me, but its working. I visit mom every Wednesday evening with my brother. The visits are pleasant. She is calm and the staff says she is much improved. I’ve let go of the guilt—I had to or it would’ve eaten me alive. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease—not only for the patient but for the family as well, and learning to cope with Alzheimer’s is almost a disease in its self.
The breeze from the lake is chilly, and Eric pulls me close. My eyes betray me, filling with tears. I wish mom could see the lake like this—she would love it. I must hold on to my memories of mom and the lake, for in the end it is the memories that we cling to—the happy times that help to fill the darkest moments of Alzheimer’s. As the disease progresses I know that I will have to cling tightly to those memories—memories of walking the shores of Lake Erie hand in hand with mom.