Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In Memoriam: Farewell to Doris

Of course, I never called her Doris. I called her Mom - because she was the epitome of a good mother and I didn't feel the least bit odd about calling her that even though she was my mother-in-law, not my own mother. But once she was in the nursing home for a long time, a lot of the people who cared for her referred to her as Doris so I started to think of her that way too.

We first met in 1983 when my then-boyfriend, now husband, Ed, was admitted to the hospital with appendicitis - a perfect way to meet one's future in-laws without any pressure! I still remember my first sight of her and my future father-in-law in the waiting room at the hospital. It worked out well for me since I am the one who brought Ed to the hospital and made sure they took good care of him. I was in their good graces from Day One.

My mother-in-law was always kind, generous and loving. She never made me feel like an outsider. In fact, later on my father-in-law told me that she always considered me a real daughter, not a daughter-in-law. I feel honored that she felt that way. We were good friends and always found a lot to chat about. Sometimes Ed or his dad had to break in to our conversation in order to get a word in edgewise.

Mom was born in 1928 and grew up in South Amboy, New Jersey, the oldest of five. She went to Catholic school and graduated from St. Mary's High School in 1946, just after the war ended. She then worked as a secretary in a doctor's office for awhile. She met Ed's dad at a local dance - soon after he had returned from serving in the Army during World War II. How could she resist this dashing young man, who was still in uniform when they first met? From the pictures I found in an old photo album, they made quite a handsome couple as they were dating.

They married in 1948. She was 20, he was 22. Mom only worked until their son was born in 1952, and then became a homemaker. Dad, who had become an engineer, was the breadwinner.

During her last illness, Dad said over and over what a wonderful wife and mother she was... but he also revealed they were truly a product of that pre-women's liberation era.

He said when they got married, she had wanted to go to school, and he said she could -- but he told her she would not work afterward. He said he told her she was to stay home and take care of any children they had, take care of the house and have dinner on the table, and he would earn the money. So she did. "You know," he reminisced, "We never had an argument in all those years."

When Ed was older and in college - they only had the one child - she did work briefly as an administrative assistant in a doctor's office and as a secretary in the local high school. Ed said she loved it. But by the time I met them she was home again. As she once told me, "Dad wanted me home." He wanted to know he could call her any time of day and she'd be able to talk to him, or run an errand if need be.

Mom was kept busy with all of her homemaking duties. The house was always spotless; no speck of dust would dare appear on any surface. She was an excellent cook, able to make everything from roasts to fried fish that was light as a feather. She made a pumpkin pie that was everything a pumpkin pie should be. She made fabulous cakes. She was an expert seamstress and made a lot of clothes, including men's jackets, and drapes for the living room. She helped a friend's Girl Scout troop earn their sewing badge by teaching the little girls how to sew. She wrote a weekly social column in the local newspaper. And she was president of the Women's Club, the Garden Club and the PTO.

Every summer the whole family would go on a road trip, including four cross-country journeys where they toured the national parks and other sites of interest. A map still hanging on the wall of the family room marks with red pins the various spots they stopped along the way on each trip. They also took trips with Ed's grandparents, to Florida a few times, and once to the Bahamas.

Right before I met her, Ed had told me his mom had just gotten her real estate license. She later explained to me that Dad was getting close to retirement age and she thought it was something they could kind of do together - she could do the selling and he could help with the paperwork, which would keep him busy in retirement.

But it was not to be. Dad's whole division was laid off when he was 61 and he suddenly found himself retired a year earlier than he had planned. After the first shock wore off - which took only a weekend - he adjusted with lightning speed and immediately started planning all the trips they would take. And Mom never did sell a single house.

Don't feel sorry though... they had a grand time. They went to Hawaii for 4-6 weeks each year (several times with us); they drove up the coast of California repeatedly, and visited the Blue Ridge Mountains multiple times, as well as taking trips with us to Portugal and Italy. They went on a tour of China and walked on the Great Wall. They took a cruise that stopped at various ports of call in Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. They skied every winter in the French Alps. When they were home they skied locally in the winter and spent time at the town pool each day in the summer.

It sounds as if they were rich, doing all this traveling, but they weren't. They were very frugal and saved their money.

They had moved from Perth Amboy, where they lived when they first married, to Holmdel, New Jersey, in 1958. The house they bought was part of a new development going in where an old apple orchard had once stood. Generous to a fault when giving gifts, they didn't splurge on material things for their home. Instead, they spent it on travel and family.

Dad still lives in the house today; they never "traded up" to something fancier. It's a modest split level home with 3 bedrooms, two of which are quite small. The house still has its original kitchen, and they had the same furniture and carpeting throughout most of their married life until Dad had to spend down some of their money to make Mom eligible for Medicaid in the nursing home, and he installed new carpeting and central air conditioning at that time. I think that was the only improvement that was made to the house, other than painting it, during most of their marriage.

Here are a few pictures of them from their early retirement years. The top left picture is from a cruise they were on, the group picture was taken on Maui, the one below is on the Asia cruise, and the bottom left photo is in our living room at Christmas one year.

Sadly, my mother-in-law's dementia began to gradually become noticeable in the early 2000s, when she was in her mid-to-late 70s. She started to forget things and ask the same questions over and over. Then she began to lose her vocabulary. She still went on trips to Hawaii and California as long as she was able to function, but on the last trip to the California coast, Dad realized she couldn't cope with traveling anymore. She was too confused.

He carried on, taking care of her at home, until he was struck with illness in early 2008. He ended up in the hospital and we ended up caring for Mom for a few days. It was then we realized how bad her condition had become. We were still working at the time, and couldn't keep taking days off to care for her, and Dad was going to be in the hospital for a couple of weeks after a severe intestinal bleed and surgery.

So we researched and found a nursing home, Laurel Bay in Keansburg, about 15 minutes from their home, that was able to take her on a temporary basis until Dad recovered and we figured out what to do. Mom at that time became easily agitated and we were very grateful to the wonderful staff who were able to care for her despite the difficulties. Once Dad was out of the hospital he agreed he couldn't care for Mom properly at home anymore. We looked at a few other nursing homes in the area but none were as cozy and homey as Laurel Bay. So that is where Mom stayed, and we are glad she did.

For almost 8 years, Dad went to Laurel Bay twice a day and helped Mom eat her lunch and supper (she had by this time lost the dexterity to feed herself). He knew everyone there and they knew him. Sometimes he drove them crazy because he always made sure his Doris got the best care of anyone there, and let them know if he felt they hadn't lived up to his expectations. But they all understood he did it out of love for her.

Sometimes he'd take a break and go shopping (usually to buy her something) and I would go down and help her eat her lunch. Even though at this point she could no longer speak much at all, she knew me and always gave me a big smile. She knew me right until the last few months, I think. I would chat with her as if she could answer back and let her know what was going on. I always wondered whether she was just trapped in her mind and couldn't speak but did understand. It must have been so frustrating for her.

She had a wonderful caregiver, Obai, who is originally from Haiti. She and Mom developed a very special relationship. They understood each other and Obai truly loved her. A former hairdresser in her native country, Obai loved to dress Mom up for the "elegant dining" events they had three or four times a year, and she'd always do something special to her hair.

Elegant dining was a really nice event; they had a singer there who would sing a range of songs from the old standards to more modern rock-and-roll from the 50s and early 60s, to accommodate the various age groups at the nursing home. The cooks would make a special dinner, complete with appetizers and desserts, and they served wine. Mom enjoyed these events a lot when she was first there. Later she was less responsive but I still think she liked the music and she always ate all her food.

Here are a few pictures where Mom is dressed up for these events. The black-and-white picture is her with Obai.

Dad did get away for some respite from caring for Mom. We had bought our cabin in the Adirondacks just after she went into the nursing home, so he started to come up for long weekends about once a month or so to relax. While he was away, he called the nursing home, without fail, at noontime, to make sure Doris had eaten her lunch and that she was doing well. For a long time she was.

In the past year or so, though, she began declining. She was having more trouble chewing and swallowing and they put her on thickened liquids and pureed food. I knew, from experience with my own father, who had had dementia in his later years, that this was the beginning of the end. But Ed's dad never looked at it that way. To him, anything that went wrong could be fixed, as long as he tried hard enough. And try he did. He blamed her problems on everything possible except the dementia. I don't think he ever admitted that it was a terminal disease.

Just before she truly could not swallow at all anymore, we had a discussion about whether he would choose to put in a feeding tube if she could no longer swallow her food. At that time he said no. But when the time came, about two weeks later, he couldn't let her go. There was even a piece of paper, in her own handwriting, that had been found among her belongings at home a couple of years ago, that said she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. "Let me die in peace," she wrote, and signed and dated it, in the mid-1990s. She had seen her own mother die in a nursing home from dementia. She knew what awaited her if she got it too.

Dad didn't agree that a feeding tube was "artificial means." He said he "couldn't let her starve." So she got the feeding tube, and he got three more months with her. He was happy just holding her hand - he said she squeezed his hand so tightly he knew she knew he was there. I hope that was true and not just some reflex she had.

The end finally came despite the feeding tube, or maybe because of it. She got pneumonia, ended up in the hospital for yet another time (she had had pneumonia several times in the last year of her life due to her inability to swallow properly, which causes aspiration pneumonia, even when someone isn't being fed by mouth). She then began vomiting blood. The doctor, who was a very compassionate woman, said it was common for people with feeding tubes to get bleeding ulcers. She gently told Dad that "it is time to let her go." He finally agreed to sign a "do not resuscitate" order. Mom was put into a private room and Dad kept watch over her for three days, going home only to sleep. We were there as well for much of the time. She finally drifted peacefully away on October 20, 2015.

It was Dad that couldn't bear to let her go. And it is heartbreaking to see his grief. But the next morning when I woke up, I felt her presence around me, and a great sense of joy. I am not a big believer in an afterlife or religion, but I do think there is something out there after death. I do know I felt that she is finally free and able to express herself again and is happy, wherever she is. I am not sad for her, I am happy for her. I hope Dad will feel that way someday too. I know she would want him to.