Monday, November 12, 2012

let this be the week | you make time for family

Making time for family might be a no brainer for some of you out there, most of you even. And I'd like to say that I'm one of those people that will drop everything to spend time with my family, no questions asked.

But if I'm being really honest with myself, the truth is that family is usually the last thing I make time for. Maybe it's because I think they'll always be there or because I know that they love me, but it's the easiest thing to feel like I don't have to "work on."

Until recently. Last week I had a reminder of just how important (and fulfilling) family time can be, and while this may not be your typical cheery Monday post, I still feel it's important to share, not only for me (hello, blog therapy) but for all of us with aging family members because it's something that we all will encounter.

First, let's rewind to late last Wednesday night. My mom called me up around 10pm (which should have been my first indication something wasn't right, given the fact that she practically shuts her phone off at 8pm) and she let me know that my Uncle Jack - my great uncle actually, my grandmother's brother - had a heart attack days before and that he wasn't doing so well.

For a moment my heart stopped because while Uncle Jack is 92, he's always been sharp as a tack. Even when he lost his hearing and couldn't make out a darn word we said, my mom and I used to take trips every once in a while to visit with him him. We'd chat away, and he'd ask questions desperately reading our lips. I knew he didn't catch about 70% of what we said, but every so often you could tell he lip-read a complete thought and he'd retort back with some quick-witted response.

Anyway, my mom told me that the heart attack had left his body weak and that her cousin, Jack Jr., told her his mind was seemingly pretty lost. This was the hardest part for me to hear because when you know a loved one to be so alive and full of personality, it's hard for you to picture them any other way. She told me she was going to visit him the next day in case seeing her would jog his memory or something, kind of snap him back into reality. She told me I didn't need to worry, and she just wanted to let me know.

In that moment, my heart instantly knew what I should do - volunteer to go with her and see him, knowing I wasn't certain of the next time I'd get the chance. But I want to be really honest with you guys, something in me also held back. I thought of him in a hospital bed, not remembering who I was, and suddenly I was terrified. TERRIFIED. I didn't want that image to replace all my memories of seeing him happy and healthy, and for a few moments I ran through every excuse I could come up with for not going. Luckily, though, before my fear had enough time to talk me out of it, I simply said, I'll go with you, Mom. It was the right thing to do, but a big part of me was dreading it because of how scared I was. Still, the next day, I drove downtown and met her at the hospital.

From the second I stepped foot in the hospital, my anxiety only grew. Truthfully, the only time I had really been in a hospital was to see my grandmother not long before she passed away. All those feelings came rushing back and a big part of me just wanted to run away as fast as I could. But I marched on, knowing it was the right thing to do, and knowing that I was there just as much for my mom as I was for Uncle Jack. I thought of the fact that for every memory I had of Uncle Jack, my mom must've had a thousand more, and so her fear must've been about a thousand times more than mine too (even though she's a champ at hiding it.)

We turned the corner, walked down the hall, and found his room - the very last one on the floor. I took a deep breath as we walked inside, and when I saw him, there was a split second where I didn't even recognize him. He looked so much weaker than the last time I had seen him. But, to my surprise, that shock only lasted about a half second before I saw his head look up and through the altered exterior I could see my joyful Uncle Jack. I immediately went to his side, gave him a quick kiss, and grabbed his hand. Before, I thought I might be scared to touch him, or feel awkward because I didn't know what to do, but it was like suddenly I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed his hand, looked him right in the eyes, and smiled at him - as if to simply say Somebody's with you, you're not alone.

The whole time we were there my mom and Jack Jr. would talk to him and to each other, catching up on his progress. I added my two cents when necessary, but mostly I just sat quietly. I just sat and looked  him in the eye and smiled. I knew he couldn't hear what we were saying, so rather than talk, I kind of just wanted him to (and I know this sounds super hippy dippy, but...) feel my energy, thinking maybe a smile would go further in helping him remember than pointing at ourselves and staring expectantly. A smile can be one of the most familiar things about a person, I think, and I was hoping he'd remember mine.

And sure enough, within the first few minutes of our visit, he was squeezing my hand and smiling back, looking at me right dead in the eye. I'm telling you guys, it was magical. It was joyful. It was all those other amazing things. And it wasn't scary.

Over the next few minutes, it was like things began making sense to him. At first I could tell his brain couldn't quite connect who we were, and he only spoke a handful of times in short, hard to understand sentences. But about halfway through our time there, suddenly it was like a small lightbulb went off in his head. He started to speak as he pointed to my mom and I - He's my son like she's your daughter, he said. The sentence may have been simple, but the processes that have to take place to make that connection are hardly simple, especially for someone deemed so lost.

There were so many little moments of hope like that that brought more joy to me than I can even express. At one point my mom was reminding him about my stepdad saying, Tom likes to fish. He couldn't quite read her lips so she wrote it on a piece of paper, but the word 'fish' was really getting him hung up. So I grabbed the paper and drew a stick figure fish (complete with bubbles and a smile.) It took him a second to lock eyes on it but then he said, Oh, to fish!... That's a pretty fish, looking at me. I felt a sense of victory that we were able to communicate with him. Once I figured out it was easier using pictures, I drew a big "I <3 U" on the paper and handed it to him. I desperately just wanted him to know - whether I was talking to the real Uncle Jack somewhere in there, or just a disoriented man who didn't remember me - that he wasn't alone. I'll never forget the look on his face when he understood it. Whichever Jack I was talking to didn't matter because either way it made him light up.

I'm not sure if he knew it was really me, or if he thought I was just a nice girl with pretty hair (that's not an over-confident assumption... another one of the few sentences he got out was that I had pretty hair. :) ), but either way it turned out to be such a happy experience, much to my surprise.

What I realized is that sometimes we make excuses not to do things because they're scary or inconvenient or because it's easy to push to the bottom of our lists. Sometimes too we take the people we love for granted because we think they'll always be there. Well, at least I know I did. But walking out of that hospital all I could think was that no one has ever been at the end of their days thinking, I wish I spent LESS time with my family. It put things back in perspective and I know now I need to MAKE time for my family and appreciate them more than anything. Family will hold your hand when you're sick and try to pull you back even after your mind wanders. They are the people that love you unconditionally and know where you come from.

And now, thanks to Uncle Jack, I'm reminded to make the time. It's always worth it.


  1. Definitely sniffling after this post...I have a similar story from a few months ago when I visited my great aunt. Every time I think about my experience, I have pushed it down and tried to keep the memory at bay, but thinking of it now makes me smile. My great aunt it 88, has dementia and lives in a home in Wisconsin. I haven't seen her in a year and a half, and when I saw her last, she was a cranky cat woman who spent her hours watching the cars go by on her busy street. Now, she is living in a nursing home and at a point where she knows no one, is unable to communicate, and is in a phase of "chanting" phrases over and over again. When we went to visit her, it was lunch time and all of the patients were in a small room eating their food. She was chanting "I know, I know, I know" over and over. After standing outside trying to gain the courage to walk inside, feeling guilty for even hesitating to say hello to my own family, I took a deep breath and knew it was then- or probably never. I held my dad's hand as we keeled down to eye level next to her wheelchair. I put my other hand on her back and said Hi. Tears welled up in my eyes as she continued to chant. I felt like this was the last time I was going to be standing next to her and my heart swelled with remorse of all of the missed time I could've spent with her. My dad suggested I say hello in Polish, her native language, so I nervously said, "Yakshemash, Aunt Angie." She stopped chanting. She slowly turned her head towards us with a blank stare and I smiled through my tears, looking into her blue eyes. As quickly as that word had triggered something in her memory, she began chanting again and went back to her task of cutting her hard-boiled egg. I told her I loved her and we left the room. I am thankful knowing that she "saw" me and I was able to look into her eyes, for probably the last time.

    You are very right. Spending time with family is always worth it. Thanks for giving me the courage to think about this moment for the first time since I walked out of that nursing home and to know that although this was a very scary moment for me, that others have been in the same place.

  2. wow this one really hit home last week for me also!!!! such a great reminder for all of us to stop and enjoy the small stuff!!! call your friend/family even if it's to say hello love ya!!!! thanks for writing this really help me out!!! your such an inspiration your blog make my day!!!

  3. Okay now I'm the one sniffling. WOW, Sash. Thank you so much for sharing that. Honestly I thought twice about even posting this story because I think of this place as a happy place and a place for inspiration and I didn't want anyone's mood to be negatively affected by something so emotional. But I decided in favor of posting because I want this to be an accurate portrayal of my life and the lessons I learn - not just the happy ones. After reading your comment, I'm so glad I did. It sounds like you went through the very same thing that I experienced. I'm so glad you're able to look back now and appreciate that moment - however brief it was - with your Aunt Angie. I called my mom tonight to check on Jack and it seems as though he's really taken a turn for the worse. Even though his body is getting stronger, his mind is getting weaker. It makes me sad to know he might not ever be himself again, but I also find a lot of comfort knowing that I made him smile when he was feeling so lost. It's hard to see the ones we love get older, but it definitely makes me realize how important quality time is. Thank you so, so much for reading, and especially for sharing!

  4. Thanks, Cindy! I'm so glad you felt like you could relate and thank YOU for always making my day with your sweet comments!