Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Best Days of Our Lives

As we wade through the quagmire of life, nostalgia can slam into us with the force of a tidal wave. During the hardest times, it is easy to suffer a case of the used to be’s or might have been’s.

Unlike physical life, your emotional well-being benefits more from the occasional tidal wave than the predictability of the tide. Occasional teary eyes about losses can be a healthy release, but constant sadness wears you down and takes a toll on your health as grief robs you of any good days.

Dementia can be a sad and lonely disease. During the ten years of Jim’s dementia, I lived only in the present. I learned to accept him as he was at that moment without comparing him to the man he had been, or worrying about the changes ahead. I didn’t want to become emotionally entangled in reminiscences of better times. While I was a caregiver, any other time, even rough ones, might seem like the best days of my life.

Now, nearly five years after Jim’s death, I don’t dread memories as much. They still sneak up on me and catch me off guard. Yesterday, I opened my patio door to let some fresh spring air into my home, and lit a candle to add a subtle berry scent. Lighting the candle made me pause as a rush of memories washed over me.

A few minutes later, I was putting away the nametag from the Alzheimer’s Action Summit and a basket with Jim’s driver’s license and old eyeglasses caught my attention. I picked up the license and looked at his picture, saw his vital statistics, and noted with sadness that the license expired in 1998. When the picture was taken we didn’t know Jim would develop dementia. Jim is gaunt in the photo, and I remember how concerned we were for him at the time. Inexplicably, he had gone through a period of weight loss, and my heart ached when I held him in my arms and could feel his ribs.

It is strange how some of the smallest routine moments can catapult us into another day or time of our lives. In retrospect, your recollections may be dominated with only good, or entirely bad, memories rather than embracing life’s balance. If you remember only the bad, you let past failures or traumas ruin your present. If you remember only the good, you lose the value of lessons learned and will repeat the same mistakes. Memories, like life, need balance.

Looking back at your life is like looking at a picture of a scenic landscape. A gnarled, barren tree may make the picture more appealing than perfection. You don’t feel sorry for the tree—you just see it as a natural development of time and weather.

We all develop our own version of gnarled trees. It may be the result of hard economic times, poor health, addiction, broken relationships, death, or a myriad of calamities.

Sometimes an entire forest is decimated by a wildfire, and we see only smoldering remains of a previously lush, living landscape. The circle of life embraces us and gives us comfort even when we seem to be surrounded by charred ruins. After the healing power of time, shoots push through the soil, and fast growing trees and shrubs cover the blackened earth.

Part of the secret of letting go of the past is to acknowledge you can’t go back and change what has already happened. You don’t need to long for how your life was at one time, or regret how different your life could have been if you had made better choices. You can only move forward with confidence that the best days of your life are ahead of you, and the best one of all is today.

copyright (c) March 2010 L. S. Fisher


karen said...

When my dad died mom gave away all his cloths except his coveralls that were hanging on the closet door. We have moved mom out of that room and into a bedroom that is better for her needs. We put dads coveralls on the closet door in her new room. Most of the times I cry is when I am about to change her and get her up for the 100th time. Or when I look at dads coveralls. I just want my daddy back and my mom.

L.S.Fisher said...

Karen, I gave away most of Jim's clothes, but couldn't part with a few of his favorite shirts.

Anonymous said...

My mother was diagnosed with early onset last year also. There really is a minefield of emotions that pop up with it. I think your balanced approach to memories makes a lot of sense and was paired with a lovely metaphor. Mum just recently turned 60 - and I am in my 20s. I feel a little ill equipped for the journey ahead, but it really is inspiring to hear stories like your own.