A Bit More from the Sunshine State

We went to Florida to check on the folks. We left on a cold Spring day from Albany and arrived two hours later to a warm breeze in Fort Lauderdale. We picked up the rental car and got on the highway heading to my mom.

“Enjoy this ride,” Gary, my husband, said with a laugh, “it’s going to be the best part of the trip.” I sighed and smiled.

My mother lived in an “active retirement community,” which featured 12 tennis courts, a huge community pool and abundant palm trees. Unfortunately, age, spinal stenosis, lung cancer, and bouts of congestive heart failure took their toll and my 82-year-old mom wasn’t so active anymore. After the latest health crisis, my brothers and I prodded her into accepting the need to move into an independent living facility in New Jersey, closer to family. This was our last visit in Florida before her move – we were, in part, going to help prepare her.

We arrived at the gate to the community, pushed the buttons to ring her and she buzzed us in on the first try. We drove to her unit and found her waiting outside with a broad smile, happy to see us and proudly showing us the art gallery she set up in her garage. The walls were lined with her creations from the past 20 years. I have some of her paintings hanging in my own house. She doesn’t paint anymore; she got frustrated when she felt she wasn’t improving.

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Mom’s painting of their home in Livingston Manor which hangs on our bedroom wall. Mom and Dad’s ‘happy place.’

That day was a good one for Mom. Days were measured by pain level. Arthritis and deteriorating vertebrae are unpredictable; the pain can range from debilitating to manageable to nonexistent. My mother’s face lets us know exactly what the pain level is – it registers immediately in her coloring and in the sound effects that accompany any movement.

We visited with her for two days, ran errands and planned for her move north. We may have gotten in the swimming pool. I promised to come back down to help her pack just before the move.

Then we got back on the road and drove down to visit my in-laws in their retirement community.

Paula, Gary’s mom, has Alzheimer’s disease. The changes in her began about eight years ago. We have been fortunate in that it has been a very slow decline – long periods of time pass without further diminishment. But then there are dramatic changes. This visit we notice her eating habits changed. She craves sweets and she forgets that she has already indulged. This could be kind of funny, but it isn’t.

We ate breakfast and Paula took a Klondike bar for dessert. She enjoyed it thoroughly as she slowly savored the vanilla ice cream wrapped in a chocolate shell. She loves chocolate. We moved to the living room to sit and chat. After a couple of minutes, Paula asked, “Does anyone want an ice cream?”

“Paula, not now,” David said gently, reminding her that we were going out to lunch later.

She looked crestfallen, a small pout of her lower lip, but she acquiesced.

Gary suggested we take a walk. It took a while for Paula to prepare herself to leave the apartment. The four of us walked slowly, it is only about 100 yards to the pavilion with the pool. We found chairs in the shade and sat and chatted for a bit. Paula quickly turned restless, ready to return to the apartment.

“I think I’ll stay and read for a bit,” I said. Reading by a pool is one of my favorite things to do.

“Linda, you’ll come with us?” Paula half asked, half stated.

“Actually I think it will be all right if I stay and read for a little. I’ll be back in less than an hour, ok?” I looked to Gary to see if he was okay with this. He nodded.

“Ma, it’ll be okay,” Gary reassured Paula as he steered her back towards the apartment.

I watched them make their way through the gate. I took a deep breath and opened my book.

About 15 minutes later I heard the squeak of the gate and saw Gary and Paula heading toward me. Gary looked sheepish and said quietly, “I couldn’t distract her. She insisted on coming back to get you.”

I looked at Paula and smiled, “I’m sorry I worried you.”

“She thought the Cossacks would get you,” Gary said in my ear.

“Who would’ve thought that the Cossacks knew about the satellite pool in Pembroke Pines?”

It was a feeble attempt at humor. If you don’t laugh, you cry. Sometimes you do both.

8 thoughts on “A Bit More from the Sunshine State

  1. You remind me of when Dad and I visited the aging relatives in Florida, and now I am the aged relative. Aunt Bess, Uncle Harry, Aunt Rowena as well as Grandma and Grandpa (Brody) are all gone. I also remember those visits and what we did to relieve the irritations. I remember going to the movies, visiting Aunt Simma after Uncle Paul died. Not to be to maudlin, there were some happy and fun times too. So now I look back at photos and I’m glad we did it. Maybe it’s me, but there were good times too even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.I now treasure the memories of my father and all the other relatives. But, I am glad to be in NJ now and closer to all of you.

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    1. First that’s a great painting of the house in Livingston Manor. Mom, you should re-start that hobby. You are quite good at it whether you want to admit to it or not. I always took visiting the “old” relatives in Florida as a heritage trip. I enjoyed the stories I learned and it gave me a feeling of belonging. It enabled me to pass along these same stories to my children and I hope it provides to them a sense of belonging as it does for me.

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  2. I can relate to everything you posted. But from the standpoint of a caregiver, not as the child of a senior.
    It can sometimes be heartbreaking, sometimes be a blessing. What I most admire about their generation is that there’s no quit in them. That they keep striving to move forward and making the best of life
    To be the ages we are and still have your parents is truly a gift.

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  3. I can’t hear my mother’s former voice any longer. For some time after she became affected by Alzhemier’s, I could still hear the bright, wise and loving voice. The voice that raised me and made me do my homework and took care of me when I was sick. And now I can’t hear it anymore. I need to listen to her Shoah testimony on video and hear it again.

    But, somehow, her caretaker and protector instincts have survived and persevered. She still came to rescue you from the Cossacks. She didn’t run away. Most people would. I love you Mom.

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    1. Your comment brings tears to my eyes. You and Linda– quite a pair of writers. And parents of Dan and Leah. Accomplished you both are.

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  4. Gary – I know exactly what you mean about not being able to hear your mother’s voice anymore. How lucky you are that your mother’s voice is preserved on video. I’m so sorry that you, your father, your siblings, Linda, and your children are watching a dearly loved family member fade. I believe the essence of who a person is can never be truly lost, as you’ve illustrated. I always thought the mother I remembered was trapped in the shell of the body that was betraying her. I tried to relate to her in a way that showed I knew she was still in there. I thought of it as my mother drowning in a whirlpool and I had to grab her hand to be her lifeline, to slow her feeling of being swallowed up, and to make her feel safe. The most important thing is that even if your mother does not specifically remember some things, she can still feel, and I have no doubt she feels how much she is loved.

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    1. Thank you Laurie. It is very much appreciated. I agree with you. I do believe she knows she is loved. And we must take comfort in such understandings.

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