The Sharp Edge of Truth

I’m as selfish as the next person.  I want my time to be my own.  I want to dictate how it’s spent.  I want to do what I want, when I want.  I don’t want to be inconvenienced.  This attitude puts me into an interesting position at present because I am dealing with not one, not two, but three elderly individuals. All have reached their decline at the same time which, let me assure you,  makes for more fun than should be allowed.

First up (if I have to put them into any sort of order) is my dog Tucker.  I’ve blogged about him before.  Tuck has been with me since he was 10 weeks old.  He’s just turned 12.  He maintained good health for most of those years (his little sister Bella — who also lived with us — was the bug-a-boo when it came to illness and injury).  As can be expected, I’ve witnessed a general slowing down on Tucker’s part over the past few years, a hesitance when moving, a tendency to not find the water or food bowl, an occasional totter into the wall.  Arthritis has set in, as have spinal stenosis and bone spurs in his shoulders.  His genial, gentle, good-boy personality suffered at the outset and he began to attack Bella (although, to his credit, never the cats and never a human).  Off to the vet we went and he’s been on pain meds ever since which have made a profound and positive difference.  Just before last Thanksgiving, Bella died and Tuck went into mourning.  He developed colitis, which could only be controlled by more meds and changing his diet to boiled rice and chicken.  (Before any of you gets on your soap box about responsible pet ownership and whether or not this dog should be euthanized, let me assure you that despite his medical issues Tucker retains quality of life.  He’s happy.  He’s enthusiastic about his daily walk (one-quarter mile), mealtime, and meeting people.  His discomfort is well-managed, thanks to the efforts of the illustrious Dr. Gamble.  I’m not the sort to keep an animal alive for my sake alone.  Rest assured that when Tucker’s time comes, we’ll know it and respond appropriately.)

Second on my hit parade is my mother.  If you’ve read any of these blogs, you may be aware that Mom has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  This has presented challenges not only to her, but to the entire family, and it has affected each of us in our own particular way.  Mom and I were close when I was a child, not so close as I got into my teenaged years, farther apart still as I grew older, and all but estranged over the past several years.  Some time ago (before her illness became obvious, before it became clear that her occasional lapses were more than what might normally be expected from a woman in her late 70’s/early 80’s), I decided to attempt to recreate and redefine my relationship with her.  I admit I was scared.  I didn’t want to get too close.  I didn’t want to be hurt again.  To some degree, I succeeded.  Then Alzheimer’s came along and wiped the playing field clean with a single stroke.  In a matter of months most of the woman, the personality, that I thought of as my mother, has disappeared.  Now there’s a lovely little 86-year-old stranger living in her body.  I think I know her (though she proves me wrong more often than not) and I’m learning to love her as she is, but it’s been one hell of a transition, never mind learning how to bathe her, dress her, help her on with her Depends, and watch her like a border collie with a lone, erratic sheep.  She eats/she doesn’t eat.  She’s here at one moment, seemingly lucid, and at the next we’re off God knows where.  Most of the time, she’s doesn’t know me.  She knows she should and she’s adept at covering her confusion, but it’s clear on her face.  Who is this woman?  “Do you have many patients here at the hospital?” she asks as I help her put on her shoes in her own bedroom in her own house.  “No,” I say.  “Only you.”  “Oh, my; isn’t that nice?” she replies.

Last up is my dad.  He’s 92.  Diabetic.  Has congestive heart failure (his ankles swollen until they’re larger around than a DVD).  High blood pressure.  Three knee replacement surgeries have taken their toll.  He used a cane for a long time, but now gets around with a walker.  Until recently, despite his health issues, he was pretty hale and hearty for (as he puts it) a “grumpy old Dutchman,” but my mother’s illness has aged him like years alone never could.  His wife is vanishing before his eyes.  She’s still there in body (though there isn’t much of that left — 93 pounds, when she was 135 at her fighting weight), but the woman he’s spent 60 years with is all but gone.  She knows him — sometimes — but often she looks at him with confusion.  Each time, it’s a knife to his heart.  He threw himself into being her caretaker as much as he could — cooking meals, being solicitous in a way he never was before, doing laundry — but he can’t do it any longer and we’ve taken over (willingly, by the way).  He’s exhausted in body and spirit, burdened by a grief that rises over him like a slow-moving tsunami, balanced to crash down at any moment.  And now his memory has begun to fail as well.  He covers it up…or tries to…but we’ve caught too many instances.  I see the confusion on his face, and the fear.  Will he end up like her?  Can he hold out — force his body to keep on — until she’s gone, however long that takes?

I’m not looking for sympathy.  No one has to feel bad for me.  I’ve learned to glean the pearls I can from the murky waters we’re swimming through.  But the thing that gets to me — the thing that all my Hospice families confided to me with shame, the dark thought that insinuates itself into my brain all too frequently and fills me with guilt and self-loathing — is that I want it over.  I want it finished.  All of it.

Understand:  I absolutely, positively do NOT want my dog, my mother, my father to die.  Of course I don’t.  If there were a way to keep them alive and well and happy, healthy and vibrant, I would do it.  But that’s not the way of the world.  We all flourish, we all decline, we all die.  And those left behind deal with it.  But how do we balanced the love we feel with the desire for death?  It’s not even that.  It’s not the desire for their release (although there’s some of that, of course there is; no one wants to see someone they care about be consumed by the inexorable progression of a disease), it’s a wish for our own.  It’s — God help me — the craving to be FREE of all this, to not be tied down by the thousands of little events that constitute a day in caring for someone who is ill.  To feel normal again.  To feel you have time to breathe again, time that is your own to spend as you will.

It’s selfish, yes.  But it’s also normal.  All of the conflicting emotions that surround the death of a loved one are — damn it all! — normal.  That doesn’t mean they’re easy or pleasant or admirable.  But they’re justified.  No one is proud when those thoughts and feelings surface.  We’re aghast.  We’re disgusted and embarrassed and ashamed of ourselves.  But in the darkness of our hearts, our minds, our days and nights, we must admit to the HONESTY of those emotions.  To deny that is to deny one more little part of ourselves when so much is already being denied, when so much is being taken from us that we can scarcely breathe for fear of toppling that house of cards.


About Melissa Crandall

Longer ago than I care to admit--although I will--I cut my writing teeth on fanzines and media tie-in novels. Since then, I've moved on to narrative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and essays. I write to explore and understand the world around me, the things I see and experience nearby or from a distance. If I shake myself up, cool. If I shake you up, even better. Not gratuitously--what's the point in that?--but to set what I know, or think I know, on end and realize, "Well, doesn't it look different from this side!" My work is neither sexually explicit nor graphically violent. Let's face it - your imaginations will come up with things far worse than anything I could write, no matter how descriptive. Besides, it's just not my thing. I live in Connecticut with my supportive husband Ed, a cat named Ruby who might just think she's a dog, and an epileptic Australian shepherd named Holly who isn't quite certain anymore who she is, except she knows she loves her mommy.
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3 Responses to The Sharp Edge of Truth

  1. Laurie Andrews-Lester says:

    So many of your comments are so familiar. We went through this with Don’s parents for years. His Dad had a brain tumor that slowly ate away at his ability to function, and only when it had progressed to the point where we were pissed at him for not taking care of Don’s Mom, did we find out the reason. That was after an 8 hour search for him after he hadn’t returned after a routine drive to the store. He ended up in a snowbank, not far from the Vermont border. What a look of relief on his face when they told him it was a brain tumor, and not Alzheimer’s. Don’s Mom had been in declining health since her triple aneorism (sp)when Britt was 6 mo. old. Dad died suddenly (and thankfully instantly) of a brain hemorage 4 yrs. ago, and Mom last Jan. after a long downhill decline. Those feelings of wanting the constant emergencies, and daily trials to be over for her – she suffered and missed Dad so much – and us as well. Now I’m hearing from my Mom about my Dad, who has been diagnosed with a form of dementia. He was my confidant back in my teen years, when my Mom and I were at odds. I know I can never have those heart to hearts with him again. And my Mom who is constantly setting him up to fail, and then pointing it out to him. Her whole attitude is look how this is affecting me, not concerned with how it is affecting him. They live a 2 day drive from here, and I’m lucky to see them once a year. This year not at all, as Don has been out of work for 13 mo., and our funds are limited. These ruminations are not to take away from all that you are going through, but rather to let you know I truly understand. It’s an awful time, just know that your feelings aren’t wrong, but only a very honest reaction to the constant weight of all that you are going through. Hang in there, and keep writing about it. It’s a great way to get it all out, and let others know it’s ok to feel what you are feeling as well. Love you!

  2. Helene Fenger says:

    M –
    This is your bare, raw, aching soul showing…brilliantly, honestly and poignantly.
    I know I cannot take any of this weight from your shoulders, but you have my friendship, always.


  3. MJ Allaire says:

    I love you – your strength, your courage, your sheer honesty. I’m here if you need anything…

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