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Day 17: Autumn Winds of Change

Posted Dec 08 2010 4:11pm
Like a gentle summer breeze, leaves fall from their branches and the calendar pages turn gently from warm to cool, ushering in autumn's radiant last burst of bright sienna, burnt umber and ochre colors.  With much less kindness and pageantry, Carter's dementia festers quickly, changing and spreading out from within like a spidery vein siphoning vital life blood into dead end corridors of the mind.  Carter's body weight has fallen rapidly since July, reducing him to a frail state just under 150 pounds.  This change from the once virile and robust stature is a far cry from the 220 pound man that Lily embraced less than a year ago.

The catalytic change in Carter is also mirrored in his family, who have been torn into nakedness by his fragile condition.  The effect is diverse, as the resulting void from this once patriarchal family creates feelings of disappointment, anger, resentment and sadness.  "I barely recognized Dad when I saw him in August", says James - Carter's eldest son.  "Are they feeding him enough or is it his breathing?  I know that he is still finding it hard to swallow since the stroke in July."

"Poor mom", remarks the youngest, Maggie who witnesses Lily's unrelenting commitment to Carter.  Lily visits with him every day and she herself seems steadily stronger since Carter's stroke and his move to a full care facility.  While Sunset Home is equipped with a full staff of medical personnel, a dining hall and more than one hundred beds, Carter continues to ask when he will be able to go home and Lily carries the heavy burden of guilt associated with leaving him here.

Living in the United States, Frank and Irene are the two children that act as convenient buffers - sounding boards to disgruntled siblings.  "You don't know Frank", says Charlie his older brother,  "Mom is really suffering and even though Dad is in a safe place where his mood swings can't threaten her safety, she is wasting her time.  Dad is gone and mom won't accept it."  Alternatively Seamus, the self proclaimed atheist and environmentalist, calls Frank with a better plan of action, "Mom should refuse drug treatments so Dad can go faster.  Don't you think it would be better for everyone?"

Irene hears similar complaints and suggestions, but carries the feminine badge of suffering because her siblings are closer to this situation.  Molly and Erin do what they can to help but they have young families still and their time is already split between childcare and a career.   They are supportive and help mom by talking or visiting dad when they can.   Unfortunately though, a few of the siblings are so rapped up in Dad's condition that they have retreated deeper into their own lives, preferring not to participate in this new order.  Frank knows this hurts his mother but Lily pretends not to notice.

"Can you blame my siblings Sandra", Frank said one night after a phone call from his brother Thomas.  Thomas had just finished telling Frank that Dad had a rough day and begged Lily to bring him home.  After tormenting her with tears and threats, he had a bad coughing fit and the doctor had to be called to give him a sedative.  Frank confided in me: "Dad is never getting better and mom can only sit and wait until something happens.  Thomas says the new drugs help to minimize Dad's continued seizures but he's still having them and eventually he won't know who any of us is.  What kinda life is that Sandy?"

"It's life.  At least your mom can still be with him," I offer feebly.  What can I say to offer any real solace.  He's upset and thinking out loud.  "Maybe this is God's way of giving both your parents a way to make peace with their lives and to appreciate what it means to be alive."  Defiantly Frank retorts, "There's nothing peaceful about any of this Sandra.  My mom has paid her dues.  This is torture." Frank is moving quickly around our bedroom now, packing a bag for his early flight to London in the morning.

Lately, Frank has become attached to the idea that his father's life is a curse on both parents.  Frank is spiritual but his religion is stymied by the pragmatic CEO in him who can not accept that there might be any value in his father's condition.  In the past we have discussed his parents' fall out with the Church after their priest ran off with the president of the woman's church guild.  The politics of the Church and Frank's mom, who wanted to stop having children when Father White said it was up to God to decide, eroded their faith in God.

Over the years with the family's final move to Toronto, having vacillated back and forth between Nova Scotia and St. John, the McMurrays stopped worshipping on Sundays and eventually left the church all together.  Carter's success in business outpaced his religious ties and responsibilities as father, and Lily focussed on the dynamics of keeping both the kids and Carter happy.  This was no small feat for Lily, who stands a tall 5' 3".

I will forever see Lily as the Margaret Thatcher of the McMurray household; except that her iron fist is a pragmatic, deep seeded love that navigates her husband's vision of himself as Lord over his fiefdom with the interests of ten children naturally eclipsing any time for herself. Gradually, Lily has been able to  relax more and tending to Carter became easier as the children matured and started families of their own.  Frank has remained fiercely loyal to his mother, and vowed his own epitaph would spotlight his greatest success as a loving father and husband - two shortcomings he recognized in his father.

Admiring Lily's selflessness and ability to gracefully balance competing interests, I did not disagree with Frank's immediate comments.  Instead I carefully influence his views more subversively.  When studying for my master's in business, case studies convinced me that the best negotiators were those that let the opposing side believe they had proposed the ultimate win-win resolution.  As a stay at home mom, I am dutifully and skillfully bound to helping Frank recognize the best options for maximizing happiness particularly when they are hidden from view.  I know that Frank's view of his father's condition is precipitated by his perception of his father's life and his tangled in his devotion to his mother.  It is plain to me that Carter's larger than life persona in the business world and in his mind is a carefully constructed bravado.  Unbeknownst to Frank, I deconstructed this several years ago and see Carter quite differently.
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