Measures of the Heart

“When,” I asked, “do you know when something is so broken it can’t be fixed, and you just trash can it?”

I looked into my painting teacher’s blue eyes as he struggled to find something nice to say about my watercolor attempt. He breathed a sigh of relief (I think) and said, “That’s a really good question.”

I mean, I don’t give up easily—if you’ve been reading my saga for the last too-many-to-count months, you know that. But when you are confronted with a huge dark purple blob, encircled by some menacing black blobs, none of which has any symmetry or shape—well, it’s time for that question.

When to quit? It’s an issue I face every day—my homemade fudge that is hard as rocks, the Irish jig that just won’t slide out from under my fingertips, the cane that I still need if I’m going on longish walks (like around the big box stores).

I considered the question again last week when I visited my step-father. He’s 90, lives alone in a city that’s a 6 hour journey from my home, drives his own car, and pretty much cares for himself. But he’s becoming less and less able to cope with the hard work of daily living—cleaning, groceries, bills and such. And yet he fights hard for independence and privacy—and I feel selfish for loving him and wanting him protected and safe.

Driving to Chicago to visit him, I listened to Public Radio—and heard an interview with Mary Ellen Geist, who has just published a book, “Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, A Daughter’s Return”. Like one of the patients at Orchard Creek, Geist’s father Woody was a singer, and music was the way he could communicate, even into his years with advanced Alzheimer’s. Geist herself left a major radio anchor job in New York City to come home and help with her father’s caregiving. Music was the touchstone of their relationship.

But after two and a half years, Geist and her mother are exhausted. “We have been looking at nursing homes,” she says. “We have been talking about the emotional and physical toll that having my father at home is taking on my mother. But he is so sweet, whistling as he sits on the couch….

“The family is paralyzed. My mother, most of all, seems as if she is caught in amber, petrified, unable to move…I sometimes think we keep him here with us for us, not for him…. I am not sure anymore that we can give him what he needs.” (Geist, Mary Ellen. Measure of the Heart. Springboard Press. Page 211).

And there’s the real question: not when is it time to throw up one’s hands in despair and ‘trashcan it’–but when it it time to say “This answer no longer works. I need to find a different solution.” Even more, we need to examine the pattern to which we are clinging so desperately. Is it an answer that perhaps doesn’t work, but one with which we feel familiar and comfortable? Do we cling to it because to abandon the solution seems cowardly or possibly socially unacceptable?

I don’t know. I took my painting and tore it into tiny pieces. Then I went home and began again following Duncan’s suggestions, this time beginning with the light colors and adding dark ones only as needed. I think it’s a beautiful painting.

Life, however, is not that elegantly simple.

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3 thoughts on “Measures of the Heart

  1. So eloquent. I look at the graphic of the swirl of space dust surrounding a dark hole and the first thing I see is. . . a heart. . .slightly tilted to the left. . . 🙂
    Love to you, my cherished friend.

  2. “when to quit?”
    -when your loved one is not safe, despite many and various “solutions”
    -when you aren’t safe and/or can’t cope with your own life, let alone theirs
    -when things are slipping and you cannot catch up, no matter how hard you try
    -when you are thinking about ending the pain for them and/or for yourself before it gets worse
    -when everything you and your loved one have loved,cared and worked for during your lives no longer provides a reason for living

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