My Mother in Pieces

Overgrown Toenails

Oh no! My mother’s toenails, clipped just this morning, are now strewn across my kitchen floor. Pieces of my mother I’d meant to throw away. 

I’ve just spent time with her in the Memory Care facility. After my one-hour drive there, I had arrived in fear of what condition she’d be in. 

Last time I visited, only a week ago, I’d found her propped in a wheelchair in front of the communal television. Three other residents stared at a daytime drama, but my mom’s eyes were shut tight, her chin hovered above her chest, her neck swayed like a tree branch strained from the weight of her matted head. I’d moved close and whispered her name, “Sandy…Mom?” 

She’d stirred and surfaced slowly. That day, it had taken her more than an hour to emerge from the land of catatonia. For months now, she has not stepped outside the realms of dementia. 

Broken Mind

But this morning when I went through the double doors and saw my mom upright in the wheelchair at a table, I said to myself, “Thank God, today is different.”

She sits in the dining area among 4 equally silent, semi-comatose adults, some younger than her 82 years, others a bit older. I don’t know if they have Alzheimers or vascular dementia like my mom. It all looks the same to me.

“Hi, Mom,” I catch her eye from where she stares at something across the room. Her eyebrows lift and her head rotates slowly my way.  

“Oh, hi,” she says, “what are you doing here?” She seems to recognize me, her middle kid of three, all of us now in our fifties. All of us awed and alarmed at the swift changes in our mother this past year.

“I came to see you.” I touch her arm and ask if I can hug her. 

“Sure,” she says and leans in with a weak sideways squeeze.

Karen, the nursing assistant I recognize from my last visit, is handing out lunch plates. She places some mystery meat and peas in front of my mother then snaps a bib onto her neck. “Your mom got up late today, 10 o’clock.”

“Who got weighed today, what?” Mom is a bit hard of hearing and her mind scrambles the words that actually do register. 

“She said you got up late today,” I keep my tone light, a smile on my face as I smooth the bib on her chest.

Mom says nothing, plays with her fork but doesn’t lift it.

Karen continues, “She had a shower and I washed her hair but she didn’t like it much.”

I touch my mom‘s head and sift her damp gray-brown hair with my fingers. 

Heavy Head

“Play with my hair” she used to beg when a headache was heavy on her. “I’ll give you a nickel for every minute you do.”

The money was rarely tempting to 10-year-old me. Mom didn’t complain when I half-heartedly massaged her scalp. She was  satisfied by the least amount of attention she got from her busy kids. But I loved my mother so much that, even then, I had the sense to feel guilty for giving her less than 5 minutes of my time. The kind of guilt that fades fast but resurfaces in times and places like this. 

Mom looks down at her plate, makes no moves to eat. I lift the fork to her lips and she takes a bite.

Sitting across from my mother at the dining table is Janet. She’s 70 at most. Plump and smiling, I’ve seen her in the halls with a baby doll in her arms. Here at the table, no doll in sight, she’s smiling and glancing at Mom and me.

She says, “Divorced or dead, I seen him on this end but he’s not swift.” Then she chuckles, catching my eye, like we’ve shared a joke. I laugh with her for 2 seconds then quickly lift some peas to my mother’s lips.

I guess Janet, like my mother, retains some of her mannerisms even as she loses her mind. Her contagious laugh and my mother’s lifted eyebrow as she pats my cheek in pretend scolding, are old patterns their bodies hold. Though their words contain the right tones, most have lost their meaning.

Familiar Limbs

After feeding Mom a few more bites, I look around for an appropriate place to clip her toenails. No one wants to see other people’s overgrown and outdated body parts flying around the room. I wheel her to the sitting area. 

An old man named Jack is pacing back-and-forth in front of the emergency exit, his long limbs jerking in agitation. Karen asks him where he’s going. He says he’s going home. Karen tells him his daughter has his car and she’s probably running a few errands. 

“Is she coming back to get me?” 

“I think so.“ Karen lies like a pro and guides him to a chair on the other side of the living room. A fake fire flickers on the TV screen, replacing the fake aquarium from last week. Jack sits and stares at the floor, a confused look on his face.

Seeing no waste basket, I spread my jacket across my lap and cradle Mom’s size 5 foot. I peel her sock and note that her heel still bears the bruise-like bedsore formed when she lay sick from Covid nearly a month ago. I haven’t seen the bedsore on her backside in weeks and the staff says it’s not getting worse. Or better.

I try to direct the clipped nails to the jacket in my lap. When some go pinging across the room, I notice no one notices. Handling her familiar limbs, I note these crooked toes are not much different from when I was a kid, from when she was a young woman.  

Tired Feet

“Rub my feet or just squeeze,” she’d often plead from the couch as the sun was going down. I almost as often said, “No, Mom,” because my summer day was still going strong even if hers was a worn nub from her thankless job. Gilligan’s Island blared on the tv and if I did squeeze, it was distractedly. 

I rub and squeeze her feet tenderly now, sharing with her these memories of mine. She nods with an absent mind. I forgive myself for my childish selfishness, just as I would forgive my kids. Just as I know my mother forgives me.

This morning, her swollen left foot and ankle showcase those gnarly toes she’s complained about for as long as I’ve known her. Today, they sprout like the grotesque legs of a bloated tick, attached but somehow not part of the overall organism. Her ankle’s been this thick since my sister, my brother, and I made the decision last year to get help with our mother’s decline. Professionals in facilities provided an outside view of our ingrown worry about what was happening to our mother’s mind. In this past half a year, her body changed, too. New meds, institutional food. The hallucinations finally dissipated but her body holds on to the swelling. 

Stiff Legs

When I straighten her leg to get a better grip for filing her toenails, she winces, though her eyes are now closed. Is she dozing or zoning? Her dementia and her weeks in bed have weakened her. And tightened the back of her legs. Too many hours in the fetal position. I hadn’t seen it. Quarantined from it. From her. 

During my last visit, her twice-a-week physical therapist said Mom still wasn’t walking. In fact, she could barely stand.

“She should be doing more stretching.” She demonstrated how to stretch her legs back into shape. I hoped the staff was watching. I could not be there every day to rehabilitate her legs. Was this above their pay grade?

This morning, Mom seems satisfied with the wheelchair. But the staff would benefit if she could bear some of the weight of her showering, her toileting, her shuffling to and from the dining area.

My mother is mostly cooperative with those paid to care for her.

“We love Sandy, she’s always joking around,” her caretakers insist. They say she sometimes refuses to do what they ask. Who would blame her? Strangers are putting her in the shower and on the toilet, pulling down and up her adult diapers every two hours. Getting her in and out of her bed.

Today, the toenails are up to me.

Invisible Tears

When I finish clipping and smoothing those old toes, I wrap the scraps and dust in my jacket. Tucking it into my bag, I admonish myself to remember to shake it out in the trash when I get home.

“I’m going to go now, Mom, I love you. ”

“Okay, I love you too, Chris. Thanks for coming.”

Nothing in her tone to indicate emotion but she lifts the tissue in her hands and dabs at a fake tear. I can’t tell if it’s a cover up of some un-shown sadness or one of her many ways of being funny.

When I kiss the top of her head, a trickle of grief begins to fizz in my nose, thicken in my throat.

I buckle up in the parking lot and start the car. Anguish cascades through my heart and crashes in the deepest parts of me. By the time I drive the many miles home, I’ve let the waterfall wash through and forgotten all about those pieces of my mother gathered up in my jacket.

At home, I lift it unthinkingly from the bag and it spills its contents onto my floor. Oh no! She has come home with me in those jettisoned remnants of a body now broken. Always there, my mother, and now I marvel and weep to sweep her up like any other piece of dust. 

 

 

UPDATE:

My mother passed away on June 2nd, 2022 after dementia took its toll on her body and mind. Though, to me, it felt like a slow-motion nightmare, the time between her dementia diagnosis and her death was less than a year.

I had the painful privilege of being with her almost daily in her final weeks in a skilled nursing facility. She ended up there due to a bedsore she developed in her Memory Care facility. While under a covid quarantine there, she was so badly cared for, the bedsore became a deep wound that needed skilled intervention and attention. Those two weeks in bed and in isolation had left her body weaker and her dementia worse. Despite the skilled nursing wound care, she never regained her ability to walk or her ability to heal.

So there she was in the end, my dear mother, in that hospital bed, her limbs rigid, her mind lost to most of her memories.

The spring flowers waved at me each day as I passed them when entering the housing I knew would be her last. As I rode the elevator to her room, my mind and heart left the clear skies of spring and entered the murky world of a hospital corridor.

Each day I arrived in her room trying to be ready for whatever I would find. Some days, Mom seemed to recognize me and lifted her lips in a slight smile. Other times, she stared past me, and refused to eat or drink.

I endeavored to alleviate the suffering we were sharing in that sunny room with a view of which she wasn’t aware.

Each hour we spent together, I smoothed her frown and combed her hair. I cleaned her eyes and urged her to sip water, maybe playing her some music. Whether plying her with her favorite ice cream or soothing her with her favorite Out of the Grey song, I did my best to say good-bye to my mom many times along that long road of suffering.

Days before she passed in her sleep, I told her the story of her life and mentioned her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren by name. I let her know that each of us loved her, were safe and happy, and that she was safe and could be happy, too,

“Be free, Mom, free from worry about the people you love. You’re free to finally just be.”

60 thoughts on “My Mother in Pieces”

  1. Oh Christine! I’m so sorry for what you are going through. My heart aches for you…and it stirs my own experiences too. You really captured the experience in powerful words. Your kindness and thoughtfulness shine through this article. You are a great daughter! And there is no doubt in my mind that others reading this before they go through it will remember your tenderness and how loving you are to your mom. It is a great model for your own children to follow should it come to that.

    To anybody else who is reading the article (and my comment): How you treat your own parents is a model for how you want your children to treat you.

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      • Not related to this post, but I want you to know this. I have always liked the song “Eyes Wide Open”, but I have NEVER clung to it more than in today’s environment. Thank you and Scott for vocalizing my pleas to Jesus to help me focus on Him in all this madness!

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      • SO thankful for you n your music! “Walk by Faith” n “Bird on a Wire” helped me sing my way through pregnancy that resulted in 2lb Son. “He’s so tiny” his dad said. Your song responded..”I’m gonna walk by Faithn not by sight! Christian is 22 extremely healthy. Godly young man! Your lyrics made a difference in my life! Thank you! God bless your Journey!

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  2. I’m so sorry for the loss and grief you are experiencing. It is a sad and holy thing to watch a loved one decline, caring for them as best we can while also questioning the care we give. We can’t help but keep fast forwarding to what we know is coming.

    Your words remind me of the decade with my mother, who died too young (in her 60s) and with her mind intact, but with her broken body no longer able to hold on. For many years I would cut her fingernails and toenails, her hands too deformed by rheumatoid arthritis to do it herself. She didn’t want to ask my dad to do it, with his big clumsy hands, as she put it. I would remind myself that she had done the same for me as a child, just as I did for my own children. She too would beg for foot rubs, and I often thought my 8:45 bedtime was designed to get her a nightly massage, as I could stay up and watch the last 15 minutes of whatever TV show was on if I would rub her feet. It was only many years later that I connected the foot rubs and toenail trimming with the image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Ah, I thought, this is what it means, to love so deeply that we handle someone else’s feet with our hands.

    I wish you much peace.

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    • Kimberly, the story of you and your mother creates a vivid picture. Thank you for the encouragement. And I thank you for that Peace-wish ( :

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  3. My mother entered a care home after a traumatic incident in March. I am new to this. The grief. The anxiety. The stress. Watching my dad grieve. It’s too much and sometimes I feel guilty for continuing on in real life.

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  4. Christine, I’m so sorry for your loss. It was a long good-bye, but also way too short. You put it beautifully: a day we all expect, yet unexpected always is. (That song has been such a blessing to me.) Prayers for you and your family as you go through this strange time.

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  5. Reading your beautifully written intimate thoughts, I find a ministry of words from your post that paint a vivid picture of the uniqueness of moments lived going through the uncharted season of life of losing your mom, one day at a time. My sister and I are there. Your words are ministering. Praying for you in your journey. Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Thank you for sharing this experience. It mimics my own heartbreak caring for my mother right down to the crooked toes and the migraine head rubs. I was her primary caregiver for 11 years through kidney failure and heart issues and finally dementia. I called it sacred suffering. It taught me to completely let go and trust God in something I could not change though I desperately wanted to. God showed up so many times in the most precious ways that I will always treasure even in the pain.
    I also want you to know that the music of Out of the Grey has been played throughout my life. I used your song “How Loved Am I” at my moms funeral. She never believed she was worthy of anyones love.

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  7. Christine —

    I’m betwixt and between right now. Your beautifully yet agonizingly accurate description of end of life with your mom has me a little comforted and a little agitated at the same time with the system of disease care ( they call it health care 😞) Our family is in the throes of the same disease with dad. Turned 89 on Father’s Day with lots of family there but he couldn’t participate due to the ravaging effects of the disease. On the other hand we were able to get him home and have a God-sent caregiver move in for 24-7 care after 3 1/2 months of hospitalizations and rehabs and catheters and painful visits to and fro.

    I won’t go on. No need. You provided plenty of words to describe my own experience.

    I hurt for you and this all too fresh wound in your broken heart 💔
    Prayers ascending now
    Your mom was and now IS so beautiful in glory.

    Thank you 🙏

    Love, Keith &
    Mary Webb – Ohio 🎸🌲

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    • Keith and Mary, yes, the disease care system is frustrating and sometimes awful! I hope and pray the best for you and your father now that he is at home.

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  8. Christine,

    My mind and heart will be with you and with Sandy today. After receiving today’s email and the news, I went back and read ‘My Mother In Pieces’ while I’ve been watering our back yard garden this morning. I’ve found myself sobbing while moving the sprinkler as I imagined all that your mother, sometimes unbeknownst to her, went through as she left this world. My tears were also for you as you helplessly watched and suffered on her behalf as well as your own. Less than a year isn’t even enough time to digest it all, although the speed of it all was probably a blessing in some aspects. Still, I completely understand how it also felt like forever.

    I’m in my mid-fifties, and this Wednesday will be 10 years since the death of my father, who passed away after a 14-year decline with polycythemia. (I don’t commemorate the day of his death or actively try to remember it, choosing instead to celebrate his birthday each year. Celebrate the good, I say.) It was known from the beginning that a heart attack or stroke would bring the end for him, so I dreaded that call for a while. In Dad’s case, he hung on for 20 days after the massive heart attack and was mostly unconscious as his wife and I sat by his side. My ‘gift’ was that he regained consciousness on Father’s Day while I was there by myself and then remained so for a few days, giving me an opportunity to say goodbye and tell him that his son loved him dearly. I was also there at the very end. It’s still hard to think about, but it’s a good memory in some ways as well.

    You’ve had, and will continue to have, so many opportunities for reflection. The good and wonderful things about her and your relationship with her, the ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ opportunities with which to torture yourself at random moments, the empty place where she used to live inside you. If you’re at all like me, you’ll also find other ‘fun’ emotions like anger and disappointment to color your thought palette where she is concerned… I hope those don’t happen for you like they can at times for me, but I realize that you’re a human being, too. Regardless, know that you and Sandy (and now, my own father as well) are with me today as I wander through and tend to my garden. Thank you for sharing your heart. You always seem to touch mine.

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    • Sky, I will celebrate the good, as you say. Thank you for being tender in your heart as you tended your garden, thinking of your father–and my mom–this day ( :

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  9. Wow. To feel what you felt. It kept bringing me to the time my wife and I cared for her mom while dying of brain cancer. Sherlly, Deb’s mom, decided to record her last words to each important person in her life. She did this verbally into the Mac laptop. Her emotions filled me with grief, joy and amazement as she thanked so many for the love they graciously gave her. Then the requests to keep loving each other, especially the grand kids.
    I listen to her words only moments at a time, intense.

    Loving your mom Christine, helped me relate to you even more than your songs.

    This kind of love is reveals what is in our soul, truly.

    Thank you for sharing your heart.

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      • My mother in law was amazing. She gave and gave to me. After she went to heaven, I couldn’t listen to the recordings for a time and didn’t even cry. I thought something was wrong with my heart. When a hospice chaplain met with me, she said, “There is no closure until you meet again in heaven.” That confused me, but when she prayed I suddenly began to sob. In the midst of grasping tissue after tissue I saw [in the spirit] Sherlly with Jesus and she thanked me for helping her.” I was undone and happy at the same time. This release brought tremendous healing to my soul.

        Before my dad was promoted, he decided to have a “living memorial’ service with the whole family. With all the children, we were able to share our hearts and hear his response. The Catholic priest was blown away by this experience and us as well. It helped so much to process the tearing away of his presence. I’m so grateful for the wisdom of my parents and in laws.

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  10. Thank you for sharing. My sisters, my wife, and I lost my mom May 1, also with dementia, although her final descent into death was faster than yours. She lasted only about 6 months after diagnosis. We, too, watched the anchor of our lives fade away and become lost. My sisters spent every moment with her for the last few weeks, and their struggle is much like yours. Thanks for sharing your heart—as you always have.

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  11. Your heart hurts for yours. My mother also died of dementia. On her final day, as her breathing labored, I whispered in her ear, “we will be alright now. You can go. We will be alright” and away she flew to heaven’s doors. We both will see our moms again. They will be whole and healthy. One day!

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  12. I’m so very sorry for your loss, Christine. I can relate to it very well. Last year, my mother passed from dementia. I’m a missionary in NZ, and because we don’t have residency, with lockdown restrictions I was not able to go back to be with her or say goodbye. It was very hard. We haven’t seen our adult children since April of 2019, still waiting for an opportunity from the Lord to get back into the country, should we return to visit. Sorrow seems to be the primer paint color for much of what God builds in my life. It’s always in the mix. I’ve learned now to embrace sorrow as an opportunity to go deeper in the mercies of God. He is ever faithful.

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  13. “Be free, Mom, free from worry about the people you love. You’re free to finally just be.”

    Thank you.
    Bless you.

    r

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  14. I’m so sorry, Chris. I didn’t know your Mom had passed. My siblings and I took care of each of our parents separately as they died of cancer two decades ago. It is a thing of wonder to watch the people you’ve always depended on (I only have two memories of my parents ever being ill when we were growing up), become so vulnerable and age quickly as they’re dying. We were grateful that their extended diseases meant we could spend time with them knowing that they were going, but it was so hard to watch! Every week, there was more decay and less mobility, more weakness and less independence.
    Death is so real and yet it feels surreal.
    I know that you and your family are all grieving. I think that Norm Wright (Dr. H. Norman Wright) defined grief really well. He calls it “the process of accepting the unacceptable”. It really is a process and a bumpy ride. I’ll be praying for you (as I often do) as you go on this new journey.
    And I look forward to hearing all about the good news you’re getting for Calli.

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  15. Dear Christine, my heart goes out to you. Your message touched me. I was actually thinking today about “suffering” and the spiritual significance. I understand grief; I lost my mother almost three years ago and eight months later my father. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about them and miss them with all my heart and soul. You and your family are in my prayers. In love and light, Andrea

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  16. Dear Christine ~

    Thank you for honoring your mother so with your writing…and your life. When we think of our loved ones who have had a hand in writing all the chapters of our life, the weight of those memories can become very heavy, memories that sometime seem to rush in all at once. Something about sharing them as you have with us seems to lessen their weight, making them, and the pain of loss more bearable. We have walked that same road. A severe mercy, perhaps. Praying that the peace of God that passes understanding never leaves you.

    Under the Mercy ~

    Phillip

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  17. Wow. You just wrote my story that my sisters and I endured for and to which sadly ended on Thanksgiving. So like my mom, always teaching us to the end. It was hard to read yetcomforting to know someone else had our story. Ours was a bit longer, we were not allowed to see her thru all Covid which made our departure from her life swifter to when I was finally able to see her she was asleep thru most of it and I sat there not sure what to do. We had similar issues with her care as yours. The food served on plastic plates so degrading. She stopped eating and was pretty much bones. My beautiful mom. Thank you for sharing. I am now staring down the corridor of my last chapter fearful to repeat this pattern. Dan Fogelberg wrote a great song Windows and Walls that so touched me. I wish us well as we walk…..

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  18. Hi Christine,
    My condolences first of all. You don’t know me but I know you and your husband through music, a concert, and your wisdom you shared long ago through your poetic songs and truth shared on a stage. I thank you for the inspiration you brought to my younger more impressionable years.

    I was listening to your music on my phone and thinking about some of your songs you sang like “What is love”. Some of these songs I could play on repeat and it brought me here to your YT and page. Not sure if that is by chance or God ordained.
    My father passed away in beginning of June 2019 and it really hit me hard as I was always so busy with ministry, my kids and life, and when my dad was finally announced he was on his last legs with cancer and alzheimer’s, it finally came to be hard reality for me that I didn’t spend enough time with him.
    Its been 3 years now, and it took a year or two to process what I was feeling. Still not hundred percent. My thoughts and prayers are with you and the family as you navigate these feelings. I sense you had some quality time with your mother before passing which is a blessing and I hope it contributes to your healing in your loss. Thanks again, and I enjoyed your interactions with your son in the studio as well with your husband. Keep doing what your doing, and inspiring others as you are. My website link is a song I wrote back in 2004. Inspired by song writers like you.
    Cheers, Rick

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    • Rick, I thank you for the flashback to old OOTG songs. And I appreciate your honesty and encouragement from your own suffering.

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  19. Thank you for sharing about your beautiful mother. I really sympathise as I experienced a similar kind of sadness as my mum spent her last week with us in hospital barely conscious having gone out and become ill after I begged her to instead see the doctor. Thankfully she never had dementia but there were signs of aging before that and we almost lost her completely the year before. I asked for more time with her and God was gracious in giving us 1 more year. I was with her at the end but it was a huge shock and I said my farewells through tears wishing I could have done something to save her. She listened to hymns a lot that last week and I was so grateful for that as I believe they offered a lot of comfort to her and to me. This was just before Covid and I am glad God took her before that happened as she had a lung condition which would have made the situation very hard for her. It was an act of mercy that it happened when it did. All I can say is that the passage of time really does help to heal Christine.

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    • Thank you, Ian for the encouragement. I’m sorry for your loss of your mother and the suffering you and she endured.

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  20. As I read this I am ever so sadly reminded that my own mother is fading away, a slow fade… although her mind and memory is sharp as a tack, and her body fails her…. At 84 she still pushes on in yet a painful beautiful life she still loves and endures…I am so grateful for any time I see or speak to her (she’s 3 hours away). I am so sorry for your loss. I am a nurse and yes we are pros at diverting the thoughts of the dementia patient. We are so understaffed and pay grades are very low, and the caregivers are under appreciated by their employer for the most part. Be that as it may, we do what we do because we love humanity- the sick, aging, broken humanity, at the core of it. Your gift for conveying the description of the aging dying soul is so painfully beautifully heart stirring. Life is a beautiful messy journey. God and life is both pretty and ugly, as ugly as when that dying man hung on a cross- bleeding and in pain,…and yet it was a wonderful beautiful gift to help us have hope in a broken life. All that is left is hope, even if some days it’s only a thread. It makes you sad that in current society most can’t take care of their sick or elderly in their own home because our busy daily lives makes it so difficult. Thank you for your beautiful musings. I ALWAYS look forward to reading them. I hope you read this feeling the love that is intended to give to you. Love, Stephanie ❤️

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    • Stephanie, I feel all of the love you intend! Thank you for sharing your view of the situation, reminding me how hard it must be to care for others’ loved ones. I’m glad you are there to ease the journey for some. I appreciate the time you took to read and to write such kindness and encouragement ( :

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  21. I enjoyed reading this even though it was very emotional to process of my Aunt Sandy 💜😢 Good that you could be there for her especially after that sore developed and she had to be moved. She and my Mom enjoyed many good times together and always had similar personalities. I hold many dear memories of Aunt Sandy close to my heart. Thanks for sharing your emotional final year with your Mom with us. Writing can often be very therapeutic. Love you Cousin Christine 💜

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    • Yes, Bev, your mom, Aunt Arlene, was a good friend to my mom ( : Thanks for adding your thoughts to this story! Love you, too, dear cousin.

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  22. I stumbled here after wondering “I wonder what Out of the Grey is up to these days” and this happened because “Never Got to Paris” came up on a playlist and this happened because I listened to “Hope to Carry On” which released its 25th anniversary cut today, a release I’ve been eagerly awaiting for months. Whew …

    Now I sit mesmorized by your prose and fascinated by your journey. I’ve kind of caught up by reading a few recent posts. I can’t (yet?) empathize with your final year with your mother, but your eloquent and heartfelt narration of this chapter just had me. As if I were right there.

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    • Jered, that is a great description of your route to my website–so glad you found me! As I continue to wonder how best to spend my time, I found your comment encouraging. Thanks for bothering to read and to write!

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