Mushroom soup

I was opening a tin of mushroom soup for lunch today when this warm wave of recollection washed over me. It concerned my parents at the age I am now, also living in an apartment, and my mom opening a tin of mushroom soup and plopping it into a pot, which she seemed to do rather frequently. Mushroom soup was easy and they liked it. Mom’s cooking was never inspired at the best of times (the apron pictured below happens to be mine but would have suited her as well), but she was always hospitable and in those years there was so much vitality in her and conversational liveliness made up for what the meal may have lacked. IMG_7132

I keep mushroom soup on the shelf as a quick casserole or sauce ingredient, but we seldom eat it otherwise. We don’t even care for it so I’m not sure why my husband suggested it today. And maybe putting my hand to the can opener on that kind of tin would have reminded me of Mom in any case, but I’m just back from four days in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, where we marked her 97th birthday, so she’s still on my mind. The vitality is almost done for, and dementia has only tightened its grip since I last visited (for the first time ever, she didn’t remember my name), but she managed sentences like “my children are my best possession” and “I love you.” So that’s something precious, though I can’t deny I wish better for her soon. I do, I really do, and I hope it’s alright to say so. In the meanwhile, though, my three sisters and I gathered to celebrate and we had a lot of fun together, including discussion of the pros and cons of our upbringing, and in all the present-tense moments of our time with her, we could tell that Mom was happy too.

 

 

Not on the tip of your tongue

I intended to write today about words I’ve been losing (though eventually finding), like “omelet” and “dominoes”. The author of “5 tips to tame word-finding difficulties” says losing words happens to everyone, though increases with age. Does it ever!

Then I came upon Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”, which describes the phenomenon so perfectly! Here, from the Poetry Foundation, where you can also listen to it, “Forgetfulness.”

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

What should I do with my life?

“What should I do with my life?” Mom, who’s 96 and frail, who has significant cognitive loss, asked this question of my brother Al three times when he recently visited her at her Saskatchewan nursing home.

I had to smile. How often I heard similar questions when we lived near one another in Winnipeg. “What do I do now? I need to plan for my future.” This at 92. I would smile then too and say something about not needing to do anything, you can rest now, you’ve done enough. In other words, I dismissed what she was asking instead of taking it seriously.

AGE_0848

Tina Doerksen, photo by Al Doerksen

I was gently corrected about all this, however, that same year, by Gerhard Friesen, who’d worked for many years as a chaplain to seniors and was thus a good interpreter of them. Older people, he told me, often have unfinished business. Many women, he went on, have felt unfinished in their development or giftedness and when the mind gets weaker, this comes to the fore. It emerges as “what should I do?”

This surely fits my mother’s generation of women, but I submit that perhaps it’s true for all of us as we age. I often ask myself versions of it. I think it’s our sense while alive that we’re never quite finished. Simply being human involves poking about and moving forward from “what should I do with my life?” As Victor Frankl put it, it’s not life that answers to us but we who answer to life.

My brother’s response when Mom asked? “Say something nice to someone each day!” I think that’s as good as it gets. And, if you’re interested in how GF worked at this with Mom, please see the Addendum below. (Because I’m at my self-imposed limit of 300 words per post!)

 

ADDENDUM:

The following is taken from my 2014 journal, set down as closely as I could recall afterwards. The story begins with Mom telling me that she’d talked with Victor Adrian (a Mennonite educator), though I knew she meant Gerhard Friesen, who led a weekly Bible study with some nursing home residents, and when I supplied his name, it was, oh yes, yes. I gathered they’d talked about her “purpose” and something about reading. She pointed at one of her theological books, a kind of overview of the Bible or doctrine by R.A. Torrey, I think it was. Later GF and I had a phone conversation about this and he filled in the gaps. She’d been pressing him with questions similar to the ones she’d been asking me: what to do now, what about her future? When he came to her room in response to her repeated entreaties, she immediately said, “I’d like to know where I am in my studies.” He had to think on his feet, he said, but this was a clue to ask about her education. High school: had she finished? Yes. College? Yes, she’d done some studies at Bible college and also graduated from teacher’s college. An “info chart” about her life on the wall of her room verified this information. He noticed she had books in the room. Or maybe she pointed them out, the culled favourites of those collected earlier. She loved to read. So GF encouraged — no, I would say, he blessed and instructed — her to read in her theological books. Torrey seems completely “old-fashioned” by now, at least to me, but he was an important figure in the education of my parents, and Gerhard knew that so he encouraged her to re-read it and see if it brought back what she learned at college. It would “refresh” her. The advice and interaction seemed to satisfy her.

GF and I talked about Mom having been a minister’s wife, beside but also behind him, as it were. He wondered if maybe she felt her gifts hadn’t been used enough. I can recall that we children sometimes remarked, in reference to some little “talk” Mom had given somewhere, that she was a better preacher than our father.

I’m still moved by the insight GF gave me that day, to affirm my mother’s gifts, to recognize the key “bent” of her being, her deep love of reading (yes, how proud she has always been that she’s a reader!), no matter the limitations of her latter years. I’m moved that he urged her to fill it up, even in her 90s. I hope, if it comes so far, someone does the same for me.

Gifts in the fog

I found myself watching the staff while visiting Mom at the nursing home last week. I was impressed. I saw the animated raised-voice cheeriness one associates with care for the very young or very elderly (where simplified games of bowling or keeping a balloon ball aloft or folding things are hurrahed as amazing fun), but it was more than that. A spirit of genuine kindness seemed the ethos of the Home itself.

My sister, food services supervisor there, told me that the staff like Mom.

That felt good. Whether entrusting our kid to teachers or parent to carers, we want, more than anything else, I think, those people to understand — “get” — our loved one’s  personality and needs and “like” them anyway. (Even more than we do some days.)

The activity director stopped by as Mom and I coloured together. She said Mom was a “gift.” Mom lifted her head. The director elaborated: her contentment, wisdom. Somehow she’d glimpsed the latter through my mother’s fog.

I asked the woman if she was scared to get old. She said No, because of her experiences working in the Home.

     “There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Another staff person, who came by to toilet Mom, told me she loves working with seniors. Because of their stories, she said.

“But you’re not getting many stories on this side, are you?” (Mom’s in the dementia and Alzheimer’s wing).

“I feel like a different person here,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can really be myself. There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Wow, to both these women. Maybe kindness grows from looking for and receiving gifts, whichever way they come.

 

P.S. I was doubly grateful for Mom’s carers when I saw news reports that evening on rising senior abuse in Canada.