I saw my doctor last week for a physical, and had to get a shot. I haven’t had a shot since I was, I don’t know, 12. When the nurse came in with the needle, I said “Guess I’d better put on my big girl panties.” That made me think of my nephew’s wedding. Wait, what?
Let me back up. See there was this historic Five and Dime store in the town where they got married, and it had all this crazy old stuff, including some remarkably ancient granny panties. They were big. Get it?
Stick with me here.
My brother’s oldest son got married a year ago in Fredericksburg, Texas, which is about a four hour drive from where Mom lives. That was my Mom’s first grandchild to marry, and she couldn’t go. Damn dementia.
I spent a long time trying to convince myself that she could go. I devised plans with my siblings. I talked to her doctor; I even considered hiring a caregiver to go with us. I could not deal with the thought that Mom was going to miss her grandson’s wedding. But I had to let it go.
My Mom gets anxious spending 10 minutes in the car, much less four hours. She panics when she’s away from her husband, and several nights in a hotel would be very confusing. Then there was the medication issue.
Thank heavens there was a voice of reason in this, the director of her memory care unit. She encouraged me not to mistake something Mom would’ve loved to have done before dementia with something she’d enjoy doing now.
Before, Mom would’ve loved spending hours in the car with family, stopping for lunch somewhere, laughing, talking and being together. Who am I kidding? She would’ve loved the nap opportunity. Mom always slept on car trips.
But now, a short car ride makes Mom a nervous wreck. She starts telling me to slow down before I leave the parking lot. She’s startled by all passing cars, and frequently thinks a wreck is imminent. She gets confused about where she is, and what she’s doing. So a long road trip? Mom’s idea of a nightmare.
A celebratory weekend in the Texas Hill Country with family and friends would’ve made Mom so happy before. She would’ve found the perfect dress, the perfect shoes, and would’ve looked forward to it for months.
But now, being away from structure and routine throws her for a loop. She needs the safety and comfort of predictable activities.
Big parties with lots of people milling around? Mom used to love those. Now? Too much activity, noise, and stimulation overwhelms her. Big crowds agitate her.
So what part of a road trip to a big family wedding weekend would’ve been good for Mom? None of it.
I had to look at it from her perspective, not mine. I had to understand the toll it would take on her, and realize that quite simply, she couldn’t handle it.
I had to put on my big girl panties and deal with it.
What I recognize now is that I was confusing what I wanted with what Mom wanted. Because what I wanted, quite honestly, was for Mom not to have dementia.
This wedding was tangible proof of the enormous loss dementia brings. Grief is a funny thing. It creeps up on you, disguised as all sorts of emotions and actions. For me, my attempt to force an impossibility (Mom going to the wedding) was about control, denial, and anger.
In fact, looking back, I see all five stages of grief swarming around this story:
The natural reaction to a shocking diagnosis or great tragedy is to deny its very existence. It’s a primal coping mechanism. It keeps us from feeling the agony of it all, at least temporarily.
Mom not attending her grandson’s wedding was unthinkable to me. It was so far outside what her norm would be, without dementia, that I couldn’t deal with it. So, I denied it.
You know that quiet rage you get when something is profoundly unfair? I didn’t get that, I got the throwing stuff kind.
Anger is just a louder form of denial. It’s another sheltering device, a way to avoid the inevitable. It’s an outlet of sorts, just not a healthy one.
The more resistance I met talking about Mom attending the wedding, the angrier I got. I didn’t like it that everyone else thought I was nuts for even considering it. Everyone else seemed to immediately know it was a terrible idea. I hated that. Let’s just say I was livid, and it wasn’t pretty.
I spent a long time here, wrestling the universe for control. Discussing logistics ad nauseam. Factoring in every conceivable possibility. Researching hotel options, caregiver options, transportation options.
I decided it wasn’t important for me to attend all functions; I could just stay with Mom in the room. Or I could go late and leave early. We could arrange shifts. If Mom got anxious or if she behaved inappropriately, I’d take her back.
None of this would work, and even if it did, it would be detrimental to Mom. She just couldn’t go. I was devastated.
I had gotten used to Mom’s dementia on one level, but being confronted with it in such a concrete way was shattering. I didn’t want to make this memory without her.
I spent too much time speculating how Mom would feel when she found out she couldn’t go. Then I remembered her brain didn’t work like mine anymore, and she likely wouldn’t have those thoughts at all.
Depression is the way station between fantasy and reality. It’s a chance for our brains to rest, to slowly accept the seismic shift from fiction to truth. Only then can we can get up the nerve to move on.
I think it was my brother who finally said, “Carol, Mom just can’t go.” I knew he was right, and I was ready to accept it. It didn’t mean it wasn’t sad, or unfair, or ugly, because it was. But we had to accept the new normal.
Funny thing was, Mom seemed to have her own form of acceptance. She started saying she didn’t want to go; it was too far. She couldn’t be gone that long. She didn’t like the idea of an outside wedding; it could still be hot in September.
Then she started talking about the wedding in the past tense, even though it was a month or more away. We all just went with it, and told her as soon as we got the pictures, we’d have a party to show her.
Later, we did show her the pictures. She was thrilled for her grandson, and very happy everything went off without a hitch. Then she went back to watching The Andy Griffith Show.
All that hullabaloo, and it was over just like that.
Once again, Mom had taught us a valuable lesson: earning your big girl panties (or your big boy whitey tighties) isn’t about just bucking up and ignoring pain, it’s about slogging your way to acceptance.
That’s where freedom lives. That’s where joy lives. That’s where you can look the dementia demon in the face and say “I’ve got this.”