Turning Toward Gratitude and Connection

Watching my father battle Parkinson’s and slip inexorably toward death, I feel like Frodo peering into the Mirror of Galadriel.  For those of you who are Lord of the Rings fans, you’ll remember that Galadriel, the Lady of Lorien, offered Frodo the opportunity to peer into her silver basin of water, which could show the past, the present, or a possible vision of the future.  In the water, Frodo saw a vision of what might happen if he did not continue his quest – his beloved Shire being destroyed by Sauron’s henchmen.

I do not have Parkinson’s disease, and I think I still have several good years left to live, but I am a lot like my father.

My father has always been a very private, insular man. In his prime, he loved to build and fix things. He was an avid reader and loved music, particularly music theatre.  His elaborate reel-to-reel tape and amplifier system was something my brother and I knew not to touch. We knew the words to all the songs from the great musicals, OklahomaThe King and I, Flower Drum Song and Brigadoon.  He spent most of his time at home in his office/workshop which was strewn with tools, ham radios, and automobile parts.  He was a long-term government employee with a “secret” job, which was a perfect fit for his spy-like personality.  He was a devoted father, attending every dance and piano recital, and following my brother’s JMU football team around the country to see every game.  He had few close friends,  and no visible activities outside of work and home. He was a loyal, if somewhat distant, husband, who was prone to mood swings, and refused to join my very social mother in dinners or outings with her wide circle of friends.  She used to say that many of her friends thought she was a widow.

Today my father is unable to do almost all of those things he loved.  Suffering from advanced Parkinson’s, he shakes so bad and moves so slowly he can hardly dress himself, much less open up the hood of my car to diagnose a problem.  Reading is very, very difficult for him. His ability to talk has been severely impacted, and he has lost over 100 pounds. (Parkinson’s attacks the muscles of the jaw, and makes swallowing extremely difficult.) Given the increased demands of his care, he now resides in an assisted living facility near my brother.  There is no space in his room for a workshop or elaborate audio equipment, and he would not be able to use them even if they were there.  He is very unhappy here, and wants nothing more than to return – ALONE – to his 4,000 square foot home in the Shenandoah Valley.  He is alternately mad, cranky, and morose.  He is clearly very lonely, yet says all he wants is to be alone.

So now we get to the part where I am like my father.  I too am an introverted, more insular person.  I can spend an entire weekend by myself, not talking to anyone, happily alone with my camera, my flowers or my books.  Before I worked so much and had children, I spent many happy hours writing, sewing, or at the piano – all singular activities. After my older son went off to college, I turned his bedroom into my own “Virginia Woolf” room, and now spend most of my at-home hours there.  I am married to a very dear, extraverted social man who has learned not to get upset when I turn down his requests to attend this or that party.  See the similarities?

Back to the Mirror of Galadriel:  I can see the possible future and it is not pretty.  I do not know what my later years will bring, but I see – and fear – myself as I observe my father’s. 

I have spent several hours in various assisted living facilities over the past 3 years.  I have watched my parents, as well as several of the other residents, manage both the minutiae and crises of their daily lives. I have been pondering what is required to make life richer and more meaningful, not only RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, but in that distant restricted future, no matter what circumstances I may get thrown.  And both of these things require a purposeful ‘Turn of Mind’ for me:

Turn toward Gratitude:  You may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them.  When almost everything is taken away, you must find gratitude in the smallest things. There is no other choice. I’m thinking that learning to have gratitude is a DISCIPLINE.  It’s a TURN of MIND, a determination toward recognizing and giving thanks daily.  It must be practiced early and often, in order for it to be second nature when your landscape is reduced to a very minimal canvas.  Anne Voskamp, one of my favorite authors, says, “As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible.”

Turn toward Community and Connection:  When there is nothing left, even if YOU can’t talk (or write or read), hopefully there will be someone there who will talk to you.  Barbra Streisand was right – people do need people.  Connection and community are vital, even for those of us who have preferred the more insular life.  I need to learn, now, how to turn aside from pride, fear, judgment – whatever keeps me from connecting with others – and reach out.  We can all be the joy to others, as well as receive joy from others when we are in need. It’s as simple as that. If we will only open up and let them in.

4 thoughts on “Turning Toward Gratitude and Connection

  1. I dreamt and thought life was beauty.
    I woke and found that life is duty.
    Emily Dickinson
    Visit more, it makes Dad happier…for a while at least.
    Mary told him all about her trip to Florida last night. That cheered him up.

  2. Jeri, such an excellent reflection. When I can reign in ‘pride, fear and judgement’ I will experience a new freedom and joy in life today. I feel your pain as you walk this difficult journey with your dad, and it is true, we should all learn from our parents both good and bad.

  3. My father-in-law died four years ago after at least nine years of dealing with Alzheimer’s. This bright Ph.D., known internationally for work and research in his field, with a deep curiosity about history, science, and how things work, slowly deteriorated so that he could no longer read, remember, or communicate effectively. Some family members focused on the loss of his former self and mourned him before his death. Others found ways to create new memories and a new relationship with him. Holding his hand on a visit to a museum. Playing a game of checkers. Creating a DVD for him with pictures of the times he still remembered (1920s and 1930s) with music that brought back memories (“Back Home in Indiana”, the Purdue fight song) gave him something to watch and listen which gave him a connection to himself.

    As your Dad progresses in his disease there will be ways to have joyful, loving interactions with him. They just may not be same ways that worked for you and Jack in the past. Knowing your curiosity and creativity, I’m sure you will find them.

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