Transitioning Into the Next Phase

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We moved Bernice into assisted living over Memorial Day weekend. In many ways, it has been more of a relief for David and I, and as the weekend progressed and we balanced moving with her care, we were positive that we made the right decision. It was time, she needed more than we could offer, and, I think, she was ready for it. She has done surprisingly well so far. David went back to Atlanta, and I stayed behind, boxing up and sorting through her things.

At first, I was a woman on a mission, I had to make this house livable as quickly as possible. I boxed up and threw out things she had accumulated over the years, things that David assured me had no sentimental value. And then I moved further into the house. I spent a full day cleaning and sorting through one of the bedrooms. Discovering family heirlooms, Bibles from the 1950s, and other family keepsakes. I began to understand the order in which she had originally set up the room and began to understand her.

I looked through a Bible she had been given for her 33rd birthday, and read a note she had penned inside. I found her daughter’s things, items that Bernice had kept after Ayme had died. And I understood, I understood why these things, things that would mean nothing to others, were stowed away. And I set Ayme’s things aside for David and I to keep with us.

I noticed how she lovingly cherished her children’s things. And how “Mama” had become a name she had adored. As the night wound on, I reached the closet and found boxes of her husbands things. She had lovingly boxed up his things, his notes, his favorite books, favorite shoes, and had written loving notes about the items. And I understood. I understood that she had lost a man she loved dearly, that she had cherished his things because they were apart of him, but I also understood, that she was still young when he died, and needed to move on with her life.

It almost felt like it was her goodbye to him. To box up his things and tuck them away. Almost like her own private memorial for him. And I understood. I understood her in that moment.

I’ve moved on to other rooms, and I have found more of her personal things. As I sat next to a bookcase, pulling book, after book, after book, off the shelf and into the “sell” stack. I noticed an author that I had loved when I was a girl. Bernice had two shelves filled with books from Janette Oke. And I sat there for a long while, recalling my own memories, and, for the first time, grieving Bernice.

I’ve mentioned before that I have never known Bernice outside of dementia. In many ways, our relationship has been very strange. And very hard for me. I want to know this woman that David adores, but the woman he knows, isn’t the woman I know. And grieving her has felt more like grieving a stranger than a relative or friend. But as I flipped through her things and sorted her items, doing my best to be respectful of the family, I found myself, finally, getting to know Bernice.

I realized that her and I were very similar, that I would have also adored her. Her faith, her kindness, the love she showed for her family, it is all to be admired, and I finally had a glimpse of that. I found that I would have also adored Ayme, and mourned Ayme, and I found that I understood Bernice so much better because of our shared experience.

I have found myself wishing I was older, that I had come into the world earlier, maybe then I could have known her. Better yet, to have been loved by her as she has loved her own children. And maybe that is what I will grieve, the relationship we never had. The friendship we never had. The loss of a mother I could have had.

I hold onto the hope, as does she, that we will all be reunited through Christ. And I know that in many ways she is ready to move on, to be reunited with her own family, and I understand. I may never know her in this life, know her love, or friendship, but I do hold onto the hope that, one day, we will all be a family together and very good friends.

Kind at Heart

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David and Bernice during our wedding reception.

David is the youngest of four. There was Rick, Ayme, Nathan, and David. David’s father died February 1998. Within six months his mother’s brother and his mother’s mother both died. A few months later David’s sister developed bone cancer. She battled for over a year and then passed away. A few years later David’s brother Rick was faced with tragic circumstances, developed severe health problems, and passed away. Nathan, living in Bermuda, then moved to Germany, and has been there ever since. That left David to watch out for his mother and Nathan’s son, Matthew. As you can imagine, David has a very close relationship with his mother.

David was always clear that he would be the one to care for his mother and I respect that. She has been incredibly kind and loving towards everyone she meets. And extremely accepting of me. David and I knew this day would come, we knew that eventually we would need to begin caring for her. We just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. David’s grandmother suffered from dementia as well, but it didn’t begin until much later in her life. We expected the same for Bernice, we were wrong.

It’s been challenging at times. I never knew Bernice outside of dementia, and when I first met her she was just beginning to show the signs. I thought she was an odd duck, but she was nice enough so I didn’t complain. I wish I had known her before dementia. I wish I had the opportunity to see her the way David’s family does. I love Bernice for who she is now, but I wish I could know her and have loved her for who she really is. It makes me sad when I see hints of who she once was shine through. I’ll get excited and think, “Are some of the things we are doing helping?” But then she’ll slip back into her fog and I’m at a loss to help her.

And then there are days where she looks at me and speaks with shocking clarity and wisdom. I always sit down with Bernice and explain to her what is going on, what David and are thinking about things, and what we are doing for her. I want her to stay in the loop, she deserves that. Even though she doesn’t understand what we’re doing, she understands that we’re doing something and she appreciates us treating her with respect. So yesterday I talked with her about some things David and I are discussing. And I shared with her one of my concerns, it was about Brielle. I told her I didn’t want to leave my memories of Brielle, but I needed to do what was best for all of us too. Bernice looked right at me and said, “Brielle will always be with you. You’ll always have your memories and she’ll always be in your heart.”

It was just what I needed to hear and what was even more comforting, was that I knew Bernice’s words came from experience. She’s been in my shoes and she knows. She knows how I am feeling, she knows what I need to hear, and even though she’s lost the ability to do some things, she still knows Ayme. She still knows that grief and joy. She understands that I have bad days, that sometimes I need to talk about Brielle, and some days I just need to be left alone. I don’t have to explain myself to Bernice. At one point I did, and she said, “Oh, I know. It’s okay. Don’t worry about me, you just take care of yourself today.” And Bernice will go on and do her best to care for herself or help me around the house.

Dementia is a very tragic disease and those who suffer from it are certainly limited. But I am learning to not underestimate Bernice. She has so much wisdom and love to still offer. She may not always understand everything, but she still understands the spirit of things and she has been a very encouraging and loving presence in this house. I am very appreciative of her and her genuine kindness.