A Birthday Letter to Mom

Patient Expert

Dear Mom,

Happy birthday Today, which would have been your 84th birthday, is still a special day for Dad, Steve and me, even though you are now gone. I thought the best present I could give you is sharing what has happened since you left us September 29 (although I'm sure you know everything, I thought I'd give you my view).

We each are taking it one day at a time. We all are still processing the challenges that you faced during your battle with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Alzheimer's disease, how caregiving for you caused each of us to reach deeply into the core of our being, and how your death rocked our lives. As the year has progressed, Dad, Steve and I have experienced some surprises and also some backsliding.

Surprisingly, Dad has, in his own way, started to embrace your tenet of trying things. As you know, he's never been one to be adventurous, but he has started to become willing to experiment. For instance, a friend and I actually got Dad to go to lunch at an Indian restaurant. He let us create a plate of goodies from the buffet of curries and tandoori, and liked it well enough that he let us get him seconds. Bolstered by this experimentation, I challenged Dad this week to buy vegetables that he had never had eaten when he went to the farmer's market. And guess what? He returned with okra and eggplant. Now I've got to find recipes that won't smother his budding adventurous taste buds. Dad still loves  visiting his brother (Dad travelled down to see  Bob for a long weekend last month)  as well as flirting with the college girls who work at the local stores and restaurants. And his dog, Austin, helps Dad keep his spirits up. Still, Dad hasn't really reached out to anyone in the area. I wish he would join a group or go to the senior citizen's center so he can make friends, but he hasn't made the effort. But I'll keep trying to encourage him to do so.

Steve continues to march to the beat of his own drummer. He has been working a lot, although we are encouraging him to take time to exercise and relax. Right after you died, Steve's girlfriend, Diane, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, she's finished all of her treatments and is in remission. I know that Diane tried to serve as a stabilizing factor for Steve after your death. There also has been some good news: your granddaughter gave birth to a son in the spring. So yes, Mom, Steve is now a grandfather, which makes you a great-grandmother.

Like Steve, I am trying to use this next stage of my life to continue my quest to an authentic life. I find that I'm doing a lot of soul-searching to determine what I want in life (as opposed to following other people's dreams). I also finally admitted in the past few months that I'm really tired. The stress and strain of caregiving along with professional challenges that happened right before you were diagnosed with dementia took a toll, resulting in a health scare of a heart arrhythmia and high blood pressure in late April. But focusing on the basics - diet, exercise, rest, and lowering my stress level - has brought my health back in line. When I saw my doctor again in May, he pronounced the results from all my medical tests as "perfect" and found that the arrhythmia was gone. He also didn't prescribe any pills for the high blood pressure, saying he wanted to see whether this health regimen will drop my blood pressure. Thus far, it seems to have done so, but I plan to stay vigilent. This health scare reminded me of when I was a kid and would pull out all the stops to reach a deadline; then when the pressure was off (often just as spring break came), I'd come down with the flu. So perhaps this latest series of health events will finally get me to learn the wisdom and art of pacing myself. The silver lining in all of this is that Dad's been going regularly to the gym with me, where he rides the bike for three 10-minute intervals. I'm also getting back to playing tennis and starting a book group with friends. Plus, Zoe still loves to go for walks and maintains her playful nature, which surprises many when I tell them she's now a 14-year-old miniature schnauzer.

You'll be pleased to know that Dad comes over for dinner twice weekly and we often watch movies .Again, on occasion he has been adventurous in trying the foreign films I get from Netflix, although he still suggests the classics periodically (we have a whole series of Alfred Hitchcock movies to watch now). These dinners help me gauge how he's doing in living on his own. I know he still has some guilt about how he handled your caregiving issues. I listen and try to provide wise counsel, telling him that although he didn't handle some things well, he had your best interests at heart. And, as you know, you were never an easy patient and didn't want any of us to take care of you! I can't tell you how many times over these dinners, Dad says, "I wish Mom was here." I tell him I agree, but with the stipulation that  you wouldn't  involve Alzheimer's. I know you feel the same way.

So today, Mom, we're celebrating your life and the influence you had on each of us. For my part, I am taking the day off and will try to work out in the yard a little because that's something you loved to do. Dad wants to go shopping at Sam's Club (one of your favorite places to find all sorts of deals). And I'm sure Steve will take a few moments to think about you during his busy day.

Just know that each of us believes that you were one of a kind. And we wish you a very happy birthday!