My family and I visited three times with my 83-year-old mother last week in the home where she’s lived for the last few months, a quaint gray clapboard residence on the shore of the Rock River near Moline, Illinois.
They were comfortable and satisfying visits in the context of low expectations due to Mom’s diminished capabilities. Mom has had Parkinson’s disease for about 20 years, and now the disease and its treatment have disconnected enough circuits in her brain that although she seems aware of her surroundings, recognizes people, and can be expressive and even animated at times, we can only occasionally understand a complete thought.
She seemed to find great joy in her newest grandchild—her 17th—Caroline, now 7 months old. She made faces at the baby, cooed at her, and even tried to pick her up once. They played with each other’s hands. Caroline gave her plenty of smiles.
During our time together, we exchanged the usual pleasantries, made comments about the weather, and asked questions about how she felt and how her day was going. We talked amongst ourselves as she listened. As we talked, Mom listened intently most of the time, smiled, chuckled at times, and frequently added comments or told a story.
When we asked a question or our discussion stirred a thought, Mom often had something to say. Sometimes she began with a clear clause—maybe something like “Isn’t that the way it always is. . .” or “Oh my, I remember when. . .”—with her voicing then trailing off, with no real details and occasionally an understandable word just here and there.
It seemed evident that the subject of our exchanges were often begun by us in the present and ended by Mom in another time. She has much to draw upon from her 83 years:
Harriet Louise (Speer) Jewell was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, and raised as a depression era child. Her father bounced from job to job and it seems that her childhood home often heard more criticism than praise. (This was not the case in the home she and Dad created, where affirmation and support were common).
She met Dad soon after he returned from war–at Ashtabula Hyde and Leather, where they both worked. They married at the family home on East 47th street in Ashtabula (Ohio) on June 30, 1946. Mom was 19 and Dad a war veteran at 21.
She built her life around her husband, her children, and her faith. There were plenty of challenges. Her first baby, the first Barbara, died soon after birth because of drugs used to induce birth (the baby would have easily lived if she was born today).
There were four more children born over the next 16 years; three in three year intervals (Patti, Barb, and Jim), and one seven years later (Pamela). A lot of Mom’s time was devoted to raising these four children and moving because of Dad’s job, about every three years for much of married life. The Jewell homestead was a moving target—Ashtabula, Ohio; Gibsonia, Pa., Sturbridge, Mass., (and back to Gibsonia); Danvers, Mass.; Emmaus, Pa., Muscatine, Iowa; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and now Mom lives in the Quad Cities.
Mom’s life also revolved around the church and setting examples of faithful Christian growth and practice. All of her children followed the lead and example of their parents as followers of Christ.
Most of Mom’s good friends and experiences came from the church, and in retirement from Mom and Dad’s service in a missionary assistance program (construction projects for churches, Christian camps, etc).
Mom’s first serious health challenge came about 20 years ago when a neighborhood walk ended with a heart attack and successful double bypass surgery. She’s had no further heart problems, but the onset of Parkinson’s seemed to follow that attack. Then, she was forced into the role of caregiver as Dad’s final years were diminished with pulmonary fibrosis, which took his life, even as Parkinson’s weakened her.
Mom was determined to live alone, and she did so courageously for several years, which gave her great pride, until vivid dreams began to seem like reality and extend into daytime. That’s when she moved in with Barb and her family in Rock Island, and then recently to her new riverside home.
Mom has always been outspoken and as age blunted inhibitors she rarely had an unexpressed thought (you know, things like: “You must like your wife’s cooking, you’ve put on some weight this year!”). So it was difficult to see Mom unable to express herself—although it does not appear that she knows we are unable to understand what she is saying. That may be part of her current contentment.
During our visits we talked to her, held her hand, held up her chin and looked into her eyes, sought to create a good memory. Mom’s countenance told us that she was enjoying our time together. She was a participant in our conversations, sharing from feelings and experiences, the interaction giving her pleasure. We listened, and although we could understand very little, we took encouragement in her obvious joy, and we hope that she could see in our presence, our touch and our words, our deep gratitude and our love.
On one visit our group included her four children and two spouses, and five of her 17 grandchildren. We talked in a tight circle of chairs on the lawn on the muggy July day, looking out over the rain swelled and rapidly moving waters of the Rock River. As we moved inside the small private home of the couple that cares for mom and three other elderly women, Mom sat on the couch and turned to Peggy, the primary caregiver, and said her clearest words of our time together: “15 of my grandchildren are visiting me today!” Although the numbers were not accurate, we rejoiced at her awareness and at evidence of moments of joy in these later years of a life well-lived.