Tag Archives: Alzheimers

Shirley Schultz: Thanks for the Memory

Sumac seeds on a cool fall evening. The plant has “died,” gone to sleep for the season until spring. Not sure why this image, which I snapped on the bike ride before I went to see Shirley, works, but it does for me. Even at the end of the cycle, there is beauty in life.

The plan was go to see Shirley tonight and take her picture. I thought posting it would help Audrey feel connected to her mother this Thanksgiving even though Shirley’s second daughter is a continent and an ocean away from home right now.

But when I got to Promise House, my dalliance on the bike trail had taken a bit longer than I had planned, and the residents were already eating their supper. I don’t think Shirley would have minded if I photographed her while she was eating, and she looked pretty good and seemed to be enjoying her meal—and I’m not sure she would have noticed the camera—but, for several reasons, I didn’t take her photo.

It would have felt a bit intrusive. A nice old lady deserves a little privacy while she eats, whether or not she would remember being photographed.

Shirley acted like she was feeling well. She was focused on eating and had a hearty appetite.

I can’t say I’ve had a conversation with her lately, as she tends to mumble words quietly these days. But she had been getting stiff and still recently, and the two times I’ve visited her this week, she’s been a bit more active. Ben and I practically had to chase her around Promise House Saturday when we saw her then.

Today, she was just sitting and eating. Eating actively. She must like meatballs and coleslaw and sourdough bread and french fries, because she was packing it all in.

It’s hard to imagine what consciousness must be like for her. She has been slowly having memory slip away from her for years, and clearly forming new memories is not something her ailing brain is built to do. Earlier in her Alzheimer’s disease, she struggled quite a bit—a couple of years ago, poetically, she was raging against the dying of the light.

She’s calmer now, not sad. Her face is not very expressive anymore, but her eyes look happy when I call to her and ask her, “Shirley, how are you?” I guess there is enough memory left in her that even if she doesn’t recall my name or that I’m Audrey’s husband, or even who Audrey is, I’m at least someone familiar. Either that or she just likes attention from grey-haired, bearded men who act friendly.

Anyway, I think there must be a little more “there” than we sometimes suspect. For example, now and then she inserts names randomly when she’s mumbling—when I told her Audrey was in England visiting her new grand baby, Shirley mumbled for a second, and then, very clearly, said “Paula.” Audrey’s grandchild, Shirley’s great-grandchild, is named Juliet—but Paula is Shirley’s second-youngest daughter, and maybe the idea of a baby made a brief connection, maybe a little spark of her life when she was a baby’s mother came back to her.

It was gone as quickly as it arose, and the mumbling came back. But it had been there, a second of connection, the fog of existence, ever so briefly, lifting.

Life is a funny thing. We start off as cute little slugs that eat and crap and cry and don’t give a damn about anything else. Then, as we become children and grow into young adults, we flare with such heat and energy. Later, as we age, we burn more slowly.

Shirley has become a flickering candle. And there’s a breeze blowing. Sadly, someday soon, I don’t know when but surely not that long from now, the last ember will go out.

That will be hard.

But, I believe that it will be harder for us who know Shirley and have seen her change over time than it will be for her. I am not sure I consider it a completely positive thing, this new placid plane of existence Shirley has reached, but she seems at peace. And she is still making her way. Still burning, even if she’s just a small flickering flame of the vibrant fiery woman who once was.

There’s still some light in her eyes. Somewhere deep, being slowly lost in the fog of failing neural connections, there is still some Shirley surely left. Some well of memory that has not yet run completely dry.

And on this evening of the eve of Thanksgiving, it would seem unseemly to rage against God because Shirley is slipping away from us. After all, that’s far from a new reality.

Instead, I got to sit with her for 10 minutes tonight as she ate. During that time, briefly, she mumbled at me. When I first spoke to her, she looked at me, directly in the eyes.

Her eyebrows briefly jumped, a quick sign. A least for a brief instant, there was, however tenuous, recognition.

So, instead of raging against the dying of the light, let us give thanks for the embers that remain.

P.S. NOTE: I sometimes goof on the order of Audrey’s siblings, and this post originally was an example.  For two days, I identified Paula as Shirley’s youngest daughter, but Paula has both a younger sister and brother.  Sorry about that, and the post has been corrected.

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Thank you

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” An oft-reused phrase from Meister Eckhart, and perhaps too over used, but it fits my mood.

Grandchild number 3 was born today, a grand way to punctuate Thanksgiving and reason enough to say “thank you” to God. While there is plenty of stress awaiting me next week, it’s good to pause and consider how lucky or blessed I am, whichever way you want to think about it.

Audrey holds Tristan at St Luke's Hoptial Nov 27

Audrey holds Tristan at St Luke's Hoptial Nov 27

Tristan Lee Sebers chose today to make his appearance and was born shortly after 3 in the afternoon. Nice timing—waited until Thanksgiving Day had passed, but still gave the grandparents a day off to watch Nikayla for Katy and Wyatt. Most of all, mother and son came through the ordeal well.

It’s been a Thanksgiving rich in grandchildren. Elizabeth is visiting from Ames, and staying an extra night due to Tristan’s timely arrival. Nikayla is here with us for several days too, as Katy is in St. Luke’ with Tristan and Wyatt is spending virtually all of his time there too.

I feel very lucky that three grandchildren have safely entered this world. I know from experience that pregnancy can be a nerve-racking time, and, while it’s a little easier when it’s not your spouse who is pregnant, still, awaiting that inevitable passage is not an easy time.

So, number one thank you, God. Thank you for the gift of healthy grandchildren.

There are many other blessings to count, too. Just a few:

• Cate included “siblings” in her Facebook countdown to Thanksgiving. Ditto.
• It’s sad that Saminu wasn’t with us—but his new family seems very nice and happy to have him, which is, again, another reason to be thankful.
• Audrey and I are almost done with an extraordinarily busy fall semester, her as head of the Educational Policies Committee, me as chair of the faculty, all this on top of the ever-changing needs of Audrey’s mother. But, we’re getting near the end and are both sane, so thanks.
• Audrey’s mother made it past Thanksgiving Day, and is at least capable of some communication. We weren’t sure earlier this fall if that would be true, if she would even be alive today. There isn’t a lot to be thankful for when you have a person close to you whose Alzheimer’s Disease is robbing her of her brain functions, but Shirley came back from a zombie-like state, and that’s something to be grateful for. As we saw just a few weeks ago, count any day that she can walk as a blessing, and she’s been walking a lot lately.

Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Ben with little Lizzie

Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Ben with little Lizzie

• Thanksgiving Day was spent with all of the kids save Jon and all of the grandkids save Tristan who was born the next day, and Toni, too. That was a good time. And both the butternut squash/pumpkin pie and pecan pie were delicious. Thanks.
• Thanks for a sometimes emotionally draining but always interesting group of students who works on the newspaper staff at the Mount Mercy Times. Things are never “smooth” at a campus newspaper, but Mount Mercy would be without something important in its campus life if it didn’t have Brian, Kayla, Bob, Biz, Hannah, Mickenna, Erich, Mellette, Zach, Mallory, Jenny and all of the other students who care enough to create a vibrant campus news media.

Most of all, thank you for the gifts of life, health, family and friends. I don’t know if this prayer is enough, but it feels like plenty.


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