Should we go to the Neighborhood Brunch or shouldn’t we?  It took at least three days to get the decision made.  The way I finally figured out whether Mary Ann wanted to go or at least was willing to go, was by jumping up to help her when she got up from her chair and headed out to the kitchen.  She was looking for the recipe for the Blueberry French Toast that has always been a hit at the Brunch and wherever else we have taken it.  She finally signaled her wishes by her actions.  it was 5pm in the afternoon of the day before the Brunch.  We had only a few of the necessary ingredients in the house.

Getting decisions made is an unbelievably difficult challenge in our household.  We have regularly played the “What do you want to do?” game.  We almost always played that game when it was time to go out to eat. It is a miracle that we ever actually got to a restaurant and ate.  The process of deciding where to eat always went the same way unless some external circumstances led both of us to the same idea immediately.  If it was time to eat and we happened to be near Bobo’s Diner, the decision was easy – still is.  The vast majority of times it went this way, I began listing every restaurant that I could think of until I named one that brought to Mary Ann’s mind a particular menu item for which she was in the mood. Sometimes that went on so long I started heading home out of frustration.

Some things have changed as the disease process has taken its toll on Mary Ann.  The Parkinson’s has softened her voice and slowed the mental process, making it difficult to respond to questions.  The Parkinson’s Disease Dementia (a Dementia with Lewy Bodies) has stolen even more decision-making ability.  Sometimes it is almost impossible for Mary Ann to get hold of what she is thinking.

Imagine trying to play the “What do you want to do?” game when the person being asked that question has absolutely no answer, no idea how to answer.  Please understand, that does not mean there has been any change in the wanting of certain things.   It is just next to impossible for them to locate that want, name it, and get the words out of their mouth.

As with most of us who are doing full time caregiving, much of the time I can read Mary Ann like a book.  I may very well have enabled her lack of responsiveness by figuring out what she wants without her having to say anything out loud.  We have been at this relationship for well over four decades.  I can usually figure out what she wants by analyzing the circumstances at a given moment and remembering what she has wanted a thousand other times in those circumstances.

Making a decision on anything other than routine matters where circumstances can easily be read is often a protracted and painful process.  I asked about the Neighborhood Brunch occasionally for a couple of weeks.  There was no reply, nor were there any non-verbals that gave a clue as to her wishes.

I suppose the question could be asked of me, why bother to include Mary Ann in the choosing.  Why not just make the decision and go with it.  For one thing, that is not how I function. Ask those poor folks who worked with me in a Team Ministry.  Being inclusive of everyone in the process of making a decision at work often makes for a better decsion and more likelihood that all the participants will be on board when it comes time to act on the decision.  On the other side of it, I know there were times when we processed things too long and everyone wished as the Senior Pastor, I would just make the decision so that everyone could get on with doing what we were talking about.  As I often admitted, I just wanted to work it out so that I wouldn’t get the blame if the decision turned out to be flawed.

Why include Mary Ann in the decision-making?  She deserves to have something to say about her own life.  Because of the Parkinson’s and the cluster of additional health issues, she has had stolen from her any shred of control of her own life.  She has always been strong-willed, so running roughshod over her wishes would not work.  She would figure out a way to stand up for herself, even if she might take a passive-aggressive approach.

I work very hard at trying to give her the chance to decide what we will do.  I usually try to guess what she wants and then frame the question about what to do by saying “would you like to [insert what I have guessed she wants to do].”  I often have to follow it with “just say yes or no?”

As the Satuday of the Brunch got closer, I became more specific about the options.  If we went to the Brunch it would mean having the hassle of making the Blueberry French Toast, but then we would have the valuable social interaction.  I probably said it in a way that would have revealed to the attentive that I was not much interested in the task of making the BFT.  For the last two days before, I tried the “do you want to go, yes or no?” approach a number of times.  There was no response, nor where there any non-verbals I could read.

By Friday afternoon, I was specific that if we were going to go, we would need to go to the store soon.  The recipe demands that the BFT sit overnight before baking.  Still there was no response.  I don’t remember how long after that attempt at getting a response she got up with that restlessness that indicates there is something she intends to do other than the usual.  It only took me seconds to put two and two together.  She was looking for the recipe.  We were going.

I have to admit that there is a part of me that resents that she had not given any indication sooner and that her decision meant I would need to get us to the store, come home, make the Blueberry French Toast while trying to include Mary Ann in the process of making it (harder than doing it myself).  I dreaded the fact that I would need to get up at least two hours earlier than usual to get myself cleaned up, get the dish out of the fridge to stand for thirty minutes, cook it covered for thirty minutes, uncovered for another thirty minutes, make the blueberry sauce that needed to be cooked just the right length so that it could be poured over the casserole just before serving it.  During that same time Mary Ann needed to be aroused, dressed and fed so that we could make it to the Brunch on time.

When all was said and done, the Brunch went well, the Blueberry French Toast was a hit (the huge pan came home completely empty) and we enjoyed the morning.

Making decisions is terribly difficult to do, but Mary Ann deserves to be a part of them.  As frustrating as the process can be, it is important that Caregivers and Care-receivers make decisions together.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

Added bonus:

12 slices white bread
2 8oz. cream cheese
l c blueberries / 12 eggs /2 c. milk
1/3 c. maple syrup

Sauce: l c. sugar l c. water
2 T cornstarch l c. blueberries
l T butter

Cut bread into l inch pieces. PLACE 1/2 in buttered 13 x 9 baking dish. Cut cream cheese into l inch cubes. Place over bread. Top with berries and rest of bread. Beat eggs. Add milk and syrup. Pour over bread mixture and chill overnight. Remove from fridge 30 minutes before baking. Cover and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.. UNCOVER and
bake for 30 minutes or until set.
SAUCE: in a saucepan combine sugar, butter, and cornstarch add water. BOIL for 3 minutes over med. heat stirring constantly. STIR IN BERRIES and reduce heat. Simmer for 8-10 minutes. Pour over French toast before serving

Mary Ann Tremain
Faith Lutheran Cookbook 6/25/02

Should I or shouldn’t I?  Decisions come at such a pace that often it is just impossible to give each one its due.  Sometimes little decisions accumulate, and before you have time to really think about it, the decision is made.  Which decision is the right one?  How can I be sure it’s right?

About a year and a half ago, I made a decision, a big one.  I decided it was time to end a very satisfying and stimulating and meaningful career of some forty years to do full time care for Mary Ann, twenty-two years into Parkinson’s Disease.  Was it the right decision?

While the decision was made and announced a year and a half ago, the actual event took place about ten months ago.  I haven’t yet had a full year’s cycle since the day that career came to a screeching halt.   If I had been burned out it would have been an easy call.  If I was tired of the people and the demands, retirement would have been the obvious choice.  If I felt the people I was serving were anxious for me leave the job (I have no doubt some were), it would hardly have been a decision at all.  There was warmth and affirmation voiced by enough to make me feel that I was appreciated.

The truth is, it was actually a decision!  Most choices we make, while we may call them decisions, are actually simply the logical next step along a path that is actually very clear.

The word decision has as part of its root the word translated “cut.”   An actual decision is a choice that demands cutting away something of value for the sake of something else of value.  Which is which is not always clear.  In fact, my use of the word “decision” demands that the choice is not clear — at least at first glance.

I made the actual decision to retire in approximately thirteen seconds, while sitting across from Mary Ann at McFarland’s Restaurant.  Does that sound cavalier, irresponsible?  I saw Mary Ann struggling to get food out of the dish to her mouth, finally giving up in frustration.  It is as if a switch in my mind flipped.  It was a switch of recognition that the time had come.  The time had come to give her my full attention instead of having to struggle for bits and pieces as I focused on my career away from her.

Understand, while the decision was made in thirteen seconds, the process leading up to it had gone on for years.  There were many pieces that were coming together to create the environment from which that decision emerged.  While I would be retiring a year early relative to Social Security, I was vested in my pension and would have a far smaller income stream but not much different from what would be available if I waited another year.  The shock of the lower income would be significant whatever the year I chose.  Another piece was that the number of Volunteers to stay with Mary Ann was diminishing at a fairly brisk pace.  My Daughter and Son-in-Law  needed to return to Kentucky, since the two year commitment they had made was up.  The employer in Kentucky was ready for the return of a valued employee closer to the home office.  Our Daughter had been our mainstay during those two years.

One of the significant pieces of the landscape in which the decision was made was the difficulty I was having doing my work justice with the roller coaster of demands that come with caregiving.  What insulated me from that dimension was a remarkable professional and support staff that, to put it bluntly, covered my tail!  There was a high quality of service provided the community in spite of my limitations.

I can remember saying many times that I would not be a good full time caregiver.  I had decided to work well past retirement age, using whatever resources were available to care for Mary Ann while I worked on.  Even when I began thinking about moving toward retirement, I did so with a deep terror that it would be a disaster for both Mary Ann and me.

In that thirteen seconds, it became crystal clear that I needed to have time with Mary Ann while she needed me most.  Actually, Mary Ann was not really so excited about the prospect of my being at home all the time.  She has a set of feelings of her own about my presence with her — but I am the one writing this post, so you will get it from my perspective.

While I would like to be seen as noble and compassionate and a dedicated husband, I did it more for me than for her.  I have a pretty realistic understanding of humanity.  Most of us do what benefits us.  I needed to stop working and come home to Mary Ann.  I needed it for selfish reasons.  First of all, I do love her in that deep way that includes romantic love and the kind that takes decades to build.  You can only understand it when you  have experienced it.  I made a choice that I could live with.  I care who I am and who I become.  Making that choice brought with it pain beyond description and a deep feeling of worth and value that cannot be stolen from me.

When a decision must be made, each option has good stuff and bad stuff in it.  If it were all one or the other it would not be a decision.  To make a real decison means losing the good stuff in the option to which you say no and gaining the bad stuff in the option to which you say yes.

This week I am feeling the pain of what I have lost.  At the same time, I celebrate what I have gained.  I have gained time with Mary Ann, including moments of frustration for both of us and moments of joy.  Yes, I am watching her slowly decline, but I am here to see it and have some small impact on how it goes.

In a sense, I have moved from a life that included external validation from a salary, from working in a public forum, from others whose lives I entered at some of their most important times, to a life focused on internal validation and the chance to be there for another human being (whether she likes it or not) in a meaningful way, one that makes a difference daily.

Did I make the right decision?  I have no doubts!  In fact, that thirteen seconds was so decisive as to have freed me not to waste a minute on regrets or second thoughts.  I am free to live each day to the full, whatever frustrations or joys it brings.  I get to do it with someone I love.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.