On the last day of our most recent retreat to Dad’s place in the middle of a national forest, I opted for a hike while my parents stayed with the dogs. In the thirty-two years I have been going north for these family trips, almost always in the summer, I can count the number of hikes I’ve done on one hand. Typically our summer vacations in the mountain heat would be spent floating down the Trinity River, or wading near its shores at dusk to look for crawdads. In between trips down dirt roads to the river the few passerby could witness our bodies stretched as lanky as a July day over mis-matched outdoor furniture, tucked in hammocks, or fiddling with a rotation of games and snacks. But before I get into this particular hike, let me fill you in on the days that led up to it.
Following the offbeat theme of this year, my parents and I decided to spend our first Thanksgiving in the woods. We were rewarded with crisp, bright days and quiet afternoons. Mom and I arrived a few days before Dad, so I spent time organizing the clutter and prepping for the holiday meal.
Mom watched comedy movies while I plucked crab meat from Dungeness shells for hours, sauteed mirepoix for stuffing and gravy, boiled potatoes, cut and seasoned asparagus, and lovingly dressed the small turkey that only Dad would eat.
There were only two instances of dementia laden outbursts during our six days. The first occurred an evening after I had tucked Mom and Princess into her twin sized bed. I helped her into pajamas, handed her a chewable melatonin and a book of quotes, kissed her goodnight, and left her to drift off to sleep with the light on.
Dad and I stayed up and watched television from the other side of her bedroom wall. It’s a small space. An hour after I left her to doze off I could hear angry muttering coming from the other side of the wall. I waited a bit and then popped in to investigate.
“Is everything okay in here? Are you okay?”
She immediately stopped her not-so-secret, escalating tantrum and looked at me quietly. I was suspicious. She didn’t say anything rude to my face so I figured maybe she had been upset about something random. She let me kiss her check again and bid her goodnight once more. I left the room and resettled into the recliner next to Dad.
Right away I heard muttering again, the venom of her voice and the gritting of her teeth charged the atmosphere. I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying at first, but I did decipher that we (Dad and I) were “having a party” while she had to go to bed. This went on and on and on and on until finally it started to get to me.
Rule number one of caregiving: Don’t take it personally.
Easier said than done.
I went into her room again and told her that it was bedtime and that everyone is going to sleep. Her anger turned to me, “the bitch” who made her go to bed while Dad and I “partied”. I slammed the door and returned to my recliner next to Dad’s, making sure to turn the volume on the tv way down in hopes that she’d get over her noise complaint quickly.
Well into the night she continued to repeat herself over and over again, talking shit, and hyper focused on her perceived reality. There are two bedrooms at this place so my parents each get a room and I sleep on an air mattress right outside Mom’s room. I had orchestra seats for the tirade.
The following morning she was happy as a clam with no recollection of any animosity toward me.
The next emotional dementia flare-up rang to a much different tone, but also took place after bedtime. As a night owl I’m usually up until nearly midnight, or sometimes later. Shortly after falling asleep I was awoken by the sound of Mom shuffling down the hallway to the bathroom, like a bewildered moth drawn toward the dim glow of the nightlight.
With eyes still closed, willing my consciousness to dip back into slumber, my ears picked up on the sounds of quiet whimpering. I lay still for a few moments, thinking that perhaps Mom was having a little trouble finding her room. Her bedroom door was the only one between the bathroom and the living room where I was set up, so I figured she would find her way momentarily.
I listened as she made her way back to bed. The whimpering continued.
Wide awake by the siren song of distress, I briskly made my way into Mom’s dark room.
“What’s a matter Mama?”
“Where…where am I?” she stuttered.
“We’re in Trinity, Mama. On vacation. Princess is right here too, next to you.”
Her eyes were wild, pupils shrunk to pinpricks, and her grasp on reality unfound. I know this look. I’ve bore witness to it from time to time when the dementia takes full control, veiling Mom in a foreign shroud and making her unrecognizable. In those moments I feel she is her most vulnerable. A weightless feather at the mercy of any degree of wind.
“Do you want me lay with you a bit Mom?” I asked as I stroked her hair.
She nodded, still cowering at the uncertainty of her surroundings. I gave her another melatonin and gently pushed her rigid shoulders back onto the bed. After a few minutes she uncoiled, melting back into a dream state, so I retreated to my air mattress and relished the last few hours of sleep before sunrise.
On the last full day before the three of us were to mosey home, I asked Dad if I could take off for a few hours so I could explore a nearby lake and find a hiking trail.
That hike changed me. And when it did, I felt the surge sweep through me like brilliant lightning. It was a recharging from bottom to top.
Being the only one on the trail, I drank in every delicious smell and rustle in the undergrowth as if they were only meant for me. I liked the feeling of leg muscles stretching and carrying my body forward. The weight of the day pack strapped to my back was familiar, an old friend tagging along closely. If it weren’t for the daylight being stolen by the passing of time, I would have walked that trail until my feet gave out.
The next day we loaded our vehicles with Thanksgiving leftovers and sacks of dirty clothes, careful to leave room enough for dogs and humans. I asked Dad for one more favor.
“Can you take Mom and Princess in your truck so I can go on one more hike?”
With a late departure from the property I didn’t end up having enough time for a hike, but I was able to stop by Humboldt Redwoods State Park for a leisure stroll amidst the wood giants and blooming ferns. I was drunk on nature. And not dissimilar to an addict, I ached to consume as much as possible.
The first morning back home I woke up with an energy that had become unfamiliar during the pandemic. Instead of laying in bed for an hour or two before starting my day, I jolted out from under the duvet and began the morning routine: turn the electric kettle on, pour Mom some tea with a squeeze of honey, find her some breakfast, and get dressed. I put on hiking shoes and a ridiculously bright, 80’s inspired exercise outfit complete with modern cobalt leggings and a vintage fuchsia puffy jacket that Mom has owned for decades. I made sure to eat a banana, chug water, and set Mom up with an exercise video before heading out.
My initial plan was to walk the road that winds around “the mountain” right by our house. Half way up the winding ascent I was feeling so electric that I decided to add a pitstop. There’s an event center and park near the top of the mountain with a steep trail leading to the summit. I figured, why not. Might as well ride this “runner’s high”-like adrenaline for as long as I could.
Nine miles later I walked through our front door, smile wiped across my face like a love drunk dope.
In the two weeks since the Thanksgiving trip life has slowed down again. Most of the exterior house projects are completed, close to completion, or on pause for the season. I have less clients at work, which is to be expected as the weather turns colder. And I have been able to go on a hike every few days, taking advantage of Dad’s offer to start watching my Mom a few days a week again.
Actually, I never was truly gone, but most of me was siphoned into survival mode this year. This is far from over, but I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for nine months and can finally exhale to make room for a delicious gulp of air. I just need to keep feeding this new energy with hikes and meditation, cooking and reading, chats with friends. And take time to whisper, “Be kind to yourself. This is temporary.”