Monday, October 31, 2011

A Vietnam Veterans Tribute

The Sedalia Democrat hosted a Tribute in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Leading up to the event, Latisha Koetting tracked down family member to tell the stories of the men whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial on the courthouse lawn. I’ve been saving the newspaper stories because the stories of these young men tug at my heart.

During the course of the event, three local veterans told their stories. James “Smitty” Smith told about adopting a daughter while serving in Vietnam. He spoke of his struggles to go though different embassies and how surprised he was that he had to take the baby out of the orphanage. He found a place for them to live until eventually he sent the baby home with another soldier. His daughter Teresa, who works for homeland security, was present and spoke about how she owed her existence to the Vietnam War and how grateful she was to her mom and dad.

Jim Clark told a humorous account of his time in Vietnam although he had serious injuries. He said that he liked to tell tall tales sometimes so he told a friend one time about the day he was injured. He was in a field without cover and he spoke of trying to hide behind a watermelon. His story was that he took out his knife and cut the buttons off his shirt. “Why did you do that,” he said his friend asked. Clark’s answer, “So I could get lower to the ground.”

The final speaker, Gregg Davis, spoke of living through the loss of his legs and other injuries. He told of how his men ripped up their shirts to make tourniquets for him and another wounded Marine. Gregg was vocal about the damage caused by Agent Orange and the government’s lack of response. He spoke of the name-calling and how the Vietnam Veteran’s were treated after they came home.

It was Gregg’s story that made me think of Jim. I’m sure Jim would have agreed with Gregg’s views a hundred percent. I can’t remember who said it, but one of the speakers said a veteran told him, “I died in Vietnam; I just didn’t know it.” I believe that is true for a lot of the Veterans. I know the war was a big transition for Jim, and he was a different person when he came back.

Jim’s picture was included in a tribute video along with more than sixty Vietnam Veterans who have died since the war. Latisha Koetting made an observation that it seems like the Vietnam Veterans are dying at a younger age that previous veterans. This agrees with my own thinking. I’m afraid we aren’t going to see many old Vietnam Veterans. I can’t help but wonder what part Agent Orange had to do with Jim’s physical problems, and I know that PSTD had everything to do with his depression and emotional problems. It only leaves the question as to whether the war had anything to do with the rare form of early-onset dementia that Jim had.

These thoughts and the tribute must have been the reason I had a dream about Jim last night. I dreamed Jim wore a brown sweater that was much too big for him. He pulled the sweater across his chest one side over the other. “I don’t feel like me in here,” he said, with his hands over his heart. I straightened the sweater and buttoned it for him. I put my arms around him and held him close to me. “Now do you feel like yourself?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Yes, I do.”

When I awakened from the dream, I felt like I had been holding Jim while he slipped into the world of dementia. The feeling of loss was as strong as ever, but the unbearable thought was his loss of self.

The tribute was sad, but it was also long overdue. Jim would have appreciated the tribute, but he would have left before “Taps.” The sad tune always made him think of funeral duty during the year after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam. The war changed everything for Jim and for our family. I think he died there, but just didn’t know it.

Copyright © Oct 2011 L. S. Fisher

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Life Through the Rearview Mirror

During my lifetime, I’ve gone on many road trips for various reasons. Of course, my favorite trips were those taken during those golden weeks of the year known as vacation. On those trips, life looked great through the windshield.

.I can’t remember many trips that I didn’t travel with someone else. Traveling with others makes life’s little adventures more fun. It also increases the need for flexibility and bargaining. “I’ll go to the amusement park with you today, if we stop at a museum tomorrow.”

When we are on a fun trip, we wake up each morning filled with anticipation. On a long trip, each day brings us closer to our destination—the ocean, the mountains, an exciting city, or maybe the breathtaking beauty of a national park.

If we are lucky, the sky is blue, the sun shines, birds sing and every event, place, and day exceeds our expectations. Other journey don’t measure up to our expectations, and we feel disappointed. Sometimes it’s just something way beyond our control—the weather, illness, car trouble, an emergency at home, or various combinations of disasters. We may even regret wasting our time and vow we will not return to that particular destination.

Some journeys we plan, others just happen. Some we move ahead with confidence and other times, we look back and wonder why we are even on this trip.

Throughout the Alzheimer’s journey, we often find ourselves taking our eyes off the road ahead and looking at life through the rearview mirror. This holds true for both the caregiver and the person with the disease.

The person with the disease becomes more dependent on the familiarity of the road already traveled. As the ability to process new information becomes more difficult, the more important the rearview mirror becomes.

The caregiver may worry about the dangers of the journey ahead and believe that if they look into the rearview mirror they will feel safer. They have managed to navigate the road so far, and the road ahead may have hairpin curves, tedious detours, drop-offs without guardrails, and maybe even a bridge out.

When I travel, I know that the rearview mirror has it place. I like to check the rearview mirror to see how the traffic behind me is flowing. Is that car going to pass me on a curve? Okay, I need to change lanes and although I don’t see anyone now, I know a car was behind me a few minutes ago and they haven’t exited or passed—yeah, there they are in my blind spot. Oops, is that highway patrol officer flashing his lights at me? When you pass another vehicle, it is more certain you have cleared the vehicle when you see it in your rearview mirror rather than in side mirrors that plainly say, “Objects are closer than they appear.”

So what can it hurt to look at where you’ve been more than where you are going? You never want to become so distracted looking at what is behind you that you miss important signs of what may lay ahead.

Not everyone wants to be a trailblazer, and you don’t have to be when you are traveling the Alzheimer’s Journey. Others have been down the road you are traveling and they are willing to share their knowledge and help you chart your journey. Any journey is easier with a map and an itinerary. If you know which route you are going to take and what you will be doing along the way, the trip runs smoother and is much less stressful. 

Copyright © October 2011 by L. S. Fisher 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Colors of Autumn

On a drive last weekend, I had my first glimpse of autumn colors. No other time of year is as beautiful as autumn with its hues of blazing orange, yellow, red, purple, and rust. Between the colors and the brisk morning air, I was inspired to begin my autumn decorating. Not satisfied with pulling out my Halloween decorations, I was compelled to go ahead and decorate for that seemingly forgotten holiday—Thanksgiving.

The two holidays blend well together with their autumn tones. I learned a long time ago that when you turn jack o’lanterns to the wall, they look just like Thanksgiving pumpkins. I guess my pilgrims can be Halloween costumes, but I don’t think many kids dress as pilgrims. It just seems to me that the two holidays are related—not as closely as brother and sister—more like first cousins.

With the holidays ahead and the temptation to go overboard on decorations, it may be time to consider whether decorations are in the best interests of a person with Alzheimer’s. If your loved one is in the early stages of the disease, she may be more enthusiastic about holiday decorating than she ever was. He may enjoy handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

As the disease progresses, decorations and all the hubbub of the holidays may become more of an ordeal than a pleasure. One of the best ways to make life more pleasant for a person with dementia is to avoid change. Holiday decorations can change the look of a familiar place—home.

When Jim was in the later stages of the disease he became agitated and distressed when I started putting away pictures and other decorations that normally sat on end tables and on the bookshelf. One year, he followed along behind me removing the pictures from the storage box and putting them back on the shelf.

It taught me a lesson. Just because it was what I wanted to do did not mean that it was the best decision for that particular time. When he was living at home, it was better to simplify the holidays and  rethink traditions that no longer worked with our situation.

And, guess what? I never felt the least bit guilty about it and it never ruined the holidays. Throughout life, traditions have to be adjusted to each particular era. If a tradition makes someone unhappy, it is time to create new ones.

There’s something about autumn harvest that says it is time to benefit from the hard work that came before. It is time to store up for the frigid weather ahead when winter brings the beauty of the snow and glistening ice tinged with the dangers of wind chills and treacherous roads. Aw, time marches on, and we always have the unique beauty, and excitement, of the seasons ahead.

Copyright © October 2011 L. S. Fisher