Finding humor in dealing with tragic illness

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Cooking in the West

Sunday is Mother’s Day, so I would like to wish all mothers a special day. Those of us who have lost our mothers realize how time spent with our mothers is more valuable than any other gift we could give or be given. I have never written a column that has been requested for reprint more than this column I wrote about my mother and our journey through Alzheimer’s together. My mother, Florence Roberts, has been gone for 13 years, but sadly Alzheimer’s Disease stole her from me several years before that. Every year at Mother’s Day, I tried to write a column that would help others understand that Alzheimer’s Disease is a family disease. Finally I found words to write it, and it seemed to resonate with many readers who have requested a rerun.

Alzheimer’s Disease is not funny, but I am going to relate several humorous incidents to try to underscore some important points about the disease in hopes that it might help others cope with this debilitating disease. Throughout my life, finding the humor in difficult situations has been my best coping mechanism.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s often sneaks up on everyone. Sometimes we overlook little signs, because we don’t want to see them. It might be hard to believe, but we did not realize Mother was struggling until she got on the interstate going the wrong way and was involved in a car accident. We were never able to convince her that she drove on to the off ramp and headed the wrong direction. Nevertheless, we tried to explain her error to her over and over. One concept we eventually learned was that she no longer had the capacity to understand.

There was a period of transition between when the symptoms began and when she could no longer function safely on her own. That could have been the saddest time for all of us, because she constantly said, “I think I am going crazy.” None of us wanted to face the fact that she had Alzheimer’s at first. During this time, we tried an assisted living facility, which might have been the single worst idea I have ever had, but I was in early stage denial myself. I ended up spending three days at the facility with her enjoying chair yoga, making bead necklaces, dining at 5:00 P.M., and trying to transition her gently into her new life. On the fourth morning, I ran to the store to buy her a few things for her apartment. When I came back, all of her clothes from her closet were lying on the lawn out in front of the facility where she had deposited them. I had to admit defeat. I took her home, and amazingly we were able to find great home care that allowed her to stay in the only place she was happy, her own home.

She soon lost her ability to remember names, so she called everyone by my name, Susie. She called everyone (including males) by the name of Susie. One day she said to me, “Why are there so many Susies?” It is a difficult concept to grasp, but trying to explain the irrational in a rational manner is an exercise in futility.

She had always loved dolls, but she became particularly obsessed with one rather strange looking gray haired doll who sat at the table for meals, was bathed quite regularly, and whom she would warm in the oven on cold days. (The stove was disconnected for Mother’s safety, but nevertheless she often used it to warm her doll Susie on chilly days.) One day Mother said to me, “Your sister Susie has gray hair just like you do.”

Many with Alzheimer’s have periods of lucidity, and you never quite know when they might occur. One such period happened when she was riding with me to haul some cows. Usually she was oblivious to her surroundings, because she was preoccupied with things like the radio knobs or her doll. I am hands down the world’s worst trailer backer, so on about my fifth attempt to back into the load-out gate, she looked over at me from the passenger seat and said, “You are really not very good at backing, are you?”

Alzheimer’s is truly a family disease, as it affects everyone in the family. We tried to take Mother with us as much as possible even though that proved very difficult sometimes. One time at a summer league basketball tournament, one of Brooke’s friends was going to catch a ride home with us. We had prearranged that we would call her when we were ready to head for home, so I told Mother to stay in the gym with Remi and the kids while I went out to call our passenger. As I was on the phone in the parking lot, Remi and Bret and Brooke all come running out of the gym. They saw me and started yelling, “Get back in there and get Grandma. She is out on the floor.” Sure enough, when I went in, the game was in official time-out, while the referees tried to understand Mother who was relating a very confusing story about a missing girl named Susie whom the other Susie was outside trying to find.

I should have learned never to leave her after that, but a couple weeks later I left her seated in the chair at the JC Penney Hair Salon while I ran to the parking lot to get my purse. I could not have been gone more than two minutes, but when I came back, the place was in turmoil. The young hair dresser had accidentally soaked the back of mother’s blouse as she was washing her hair. Mother had leaped out of the chair, retrieved her purse, dumped out several Depends pads, peeled the paper backing off of them, and she was sticking the pads underneath her shirt to keep her skin away from the wet blouse. I am pretty sure that story has been told at many hair dresser conventions over the years!

The only way I coped with the tragedy that was Alzheimer’s was to find the humor in it.

There was no changing her and no reasoning with her. All I could do was roll with the craziness, try to distract her into compliance, and love her despite the fact that she had seemingly become someone else. Owen Darnell wrote this poem that became my guide to dealing with the illness:

Do Not Ask Me

to Remember

Do not ask me to remember.

Do not try to make me understand.

Let me rest and know you’re with me;

Kiss my cheek and hold my hand.

I’m confused beyond your concept;

I am sad and sick and lost.

All I know is that I need you

To be with me at all cost.

Do not lose your patience with me,

Do not scold or curse or cry.

I can’t help the way I’m acting,

Can’t be different though I try.

Just remember that I need you,

That the best of me is gone,

Please don’t fail to stand beside me,

Love me ’til my life is done!

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers!

Of course, I have to share my favorite recipes from my mother, Florence Roberts, this week! Alzheimer’s made me feel as though I had two mothers. My pre-Alzheimer’s mother loved horses, camping, fishing, cooking, and her family, and she was perhaps the most determined person that ever lived.

I was privileged to grow up on Sun Canyon Lodge, a guest ranch out of Augusta, Montana, and she encouraged me to cook and write and ride horses and even sleep on the ground. Thanks, Mom!

Mother’s Easy Brownies

2 C. sugar 2/3 C. oil

4 eggs

pinch salt

1 1/2 C. flour 1/2 C. cocoa 2 t. vanilla 1 C. chopped nuts (opt.) Stir all together. Pour into greased 9 x 13 pan and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Mother’s Cherry Bars

1/2 C. butter 1 C. flour

2 T. powdered sugar Mix and pat into 8-inch square greased pan. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees. 1 t. vanilla 2 eggs, well beaten 1 small bottle maraschino cherries (chopped) and their juice 1/2 t. baking powder 1 C. sugar 3/4 C. coconut 1/2 C. flour dash salt

1/2 C. chopped walnuts (opt.) Spread cherry mixture over crust. Return to the oven and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. When partially cooled, cut into bars.

Mom’s Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies

2/3 C. sugar 2/3 C. Crisco 2 eggs, unbeaten 1 C. ripe mashed banana 1/3 C. milk 1 t. vanilla 2 2/3 C. flour 2 t. baking powder 1/4 t. soda 1/2 t. salt

2 C. chocolate chips Cream Crisco and sugar. Add eggs, milk, vanilla, and bananas. Stir in flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and then stir in chips. Drop by teaspoon on greased cookie sheet. Bake about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The bottom and edges should be light brown. They will remain light colored and moist. Be careful not to overbake them!

Category: