Thursday, May 22, 2008

Deciding to Live--Ted Kennedy Goes Sailing

Last night, the television show Boston Legal had one profound moment relating to Alzheimer’s.

The premise is that one of their leading characters, Denny Crane (played by William Shatner) has early Alzheimer’s. He’s a brilliant attorney who has never lost a case–and he’s part owner in firm. The other law partners are hesitant for Denny to continue to litigate. Not only is he forgetful, he sometimes does or says bizarre things. Things Alzheimer’s patients might say or do.

Great scenario because I happen to know a great law professor from Yale who lives in my community who now has Alzheimer’s. You can be homeless and live under a bridge–and have Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or cancer–or you can be the president of the United States.

At one point, Alan, Denny’s best friend is having a conversation with Jerry, another lawyer in the firm, (who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome) about what a phenomenal job Denny did in court. Jerry blurts out, “Too bad Denny’s dying from Alzheimer’s.”

Alan is shocked. Insulted. He retorts:

“Denny’s not dying from Alzheimer’s. He’s living with it.”

There’s a great distinction here.
One of the drawbacks to early diagnosis is giving up too soon.

Early detection should mean that you receive proper medication, spend time with your loved ones, and make plans to live–not die.

In the case of Alzheimer’s, the average patient lives 8-10 years, and even longer depending on the age you contract this disease. Parkinson’s, ALS, MS, and other diseases can even offer a longer lifespan. Coincidentally, the average caregiver spend 4.3 years caregiving–leaving a bit of a discrepancy here.

The message is: don’t give up too soon.

Don’t hear a diagnosis and go home, draw the curtains, curl up in a fetal position and wither away.

As a family member or caregiver, it’s a blow to hear that your loved one has a terminal illness, but you still have to get up and face each day.

Michael J. Fox says that Parkinson’s is “the disease that keeps on taking.” He’s chosen to live with his disease. He’s chosen to do this for the millions who look to him and rely on him to raise money for research, for the difference he’s already made, but I’m sure he does this even more for his wife and his children.

A recent example is Ted Kennedy’s diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor. He had a seizure and went into the hospital just last weekend. Yet today, he and his wife, Vicki went sailing. He loves sailing and the Boston Globe said he “finds renewal on the water.”

Ted Kennedy is actually teaching his family and others how to treat him. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Kennedy’s cancer is dire, not hopeless.”

It’s proven that prayers and good thoughts can impact people’s lives clear across the country–and we can create the atmosphere and attitude around us by how we handle our own bad news.

Maya Angelou says, “We teach people how to treat us.”

Yes, it’s natural to feel kicked in the gut.

It’s natural to take to the bed, cry, get angry, lash out or pull in. Don’t beat yourself up for going through this very natural stage.

But after that, it’s time to move on.


You (or your loved one) most likely won’t die tomorrow. Or the next day.

So you take your meds, maybe get physical or occupational therapy. Change things around in your home, hire a home health aide, buy a walker or scooter or whatever else you need. Life is different. I don’t doubt that. But life can still be good.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Check out her book, a day-to-day, intimate and honest look at caregiving…

Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

available on Amazon

Family Advisor at

Syndicated blog at

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Not the Christian I Used to Be

I said the sinner's prayer when I was four years old.
I had to. I was adopted at that age and my adoptive mother said she couldn't have a "heathen" in her house.
Bad start, I guess, but I learned to love and value my faith.

It's not my mother's faith.
And I don't really practice my mother's form of religion, but after all these years, I do feel a spiritual connection.

I'm not the christian I used to be. I can't stand cheerleader church--that's what I call people jumping up and down and screaming out what you should then repeat.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against emotion in religion. If you can scream your head off at a football or hockey game, you should certainly feel free to lift your hands and cry, pray, or even scream--in the name of God.

But do it from the heart and not because you're being told to.
And yes, I do understand "mass emotions." Feeling what the masses feel. Doing what everyone else is doing even though you're not sure how you got there.

But I have a broader perspective today. I'm in my mid-forties and I've been in a lot of churches, and I've even spent a few years sitting out of organized religion. I've studied various faiths and philosophies and theologies--and even asked if I needed to do any of this at all--the whole "dust to dust" thing.

And I choose to believe.
Believe something, anyway.

Is there a God in flowy robes?
I don't know, but I do believe there's something beyond us.

Was Jesus a real person--and the Son of God?
I think so. But even if he's a metaphor, or part of his story is metaphor, (people freak out at this, but it helps reveal even more teachings and gain even more insight) I still choose to believe because his words touch me on multiple levels. I "get" the part about loving your neighbor, kingdom of heaven is within, blessed are the merciful...

I've become comfortable with the ambiguous, and I still have a handful of "this I know's" left.

Enough to give me hope.

~Carol D. O'Dell
Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

Monday, May 19, 2008

When Will I Look and Feel Like Me Again? Getting Over Grief

A quiet middle-aged woman with long brown hair walked up to my booksigning table. She had her two granddaughters, about four and five years old with her, and I saw “her” in their cherub faces–plump, creamy skin, intense blue eyes–it was like seeing her reborn with all the play and innocence of childhood.

But she looked worn, exhausted, with a tinge of sorrow in her eyes. I knew she was a caregiver.

She bought Mothering Mother, and I signed it for her as she told me she had cared for her mother for the last eight years and that her mother died almost a year ago. We shared “Mom stories” and I assured her that the last fourth of my book is about the year after my mom passed away. It’s about the transitioning out of caregiving.

I assured her I didn’t look so hot after caring for my mom either. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s not only affect the bodies of the person wracked with these horrible diseases, but they take a toll on everyone around them. Not only did I gain close to 40 pounds from stress eating, I let my appearance go in other ways–haircuts, daily upkeep–but more than that was the lack of hope that showed on my face. I recognized it in hers.

We hugged and she walked out of the store. A few minutes later she returned, walked straight to my table (a little girl’s hand in each of hers) and almost whispered, “Can I ask you a question?”


“When will I look…and feel like me again?”


After intense caregiving and then the passing of your loved one, the first emotion I had was that of feeling charred, as if you’ve survived an awful fire–but your nerve endings, hair and skin got scorched on the way out. That’s shock. That’s what the dying process and then going through death does to a person. You feel stunned. Numb and yet sensitive beyond belief.

You walk around empty handed and nothing you do seems to hold any meaning.

You miss your routine.

Then, the guilts and regrets wash over you.

All you want to do is sleep, but you can’t.

You have no idea how to start your life again.

Then come all the firsts–death certificate, a holiday or birthday, packing their belongings. Each one peels back another layer of new skin leaving you raw all over again.

After weeks or months (and for some, a couple of years–everyone has their own internal timetable) you know you need to get rolling again. It’s awkward, feels stupid, but you make yourself do something–get a part-time job, join a Sunday School class, go to Weight Watchers, volunteer at the library–and you simply have to make yourself go.

Everything’s overwhelming, and there’s a real temptation to just veg out in front of the television with the remote permanently affixed to your hand–or become the Solitaire champ of the world, but you know it’s not good for you.

You know you have to go on with your life.

But how?

I found that I already had my “answer” (at least a few tools) deep inside me.

This wasn’t the first traumatic event I’ve faced, and I doubt it’s your first either.

All the other things you’ve gone through–divorce, car accidents, cancer scares, even death of a pet has given you the tools to know how to heal yourself.

Ask: How did I get through ____________? (Fill in the blank)

I have a relative whose wife died in a car accident (beside him in the car). It was a grueling recovery as well as tragic grief. He dealt with it by walking–he walked two, three, sometimes four hours a day.

Months later, I asked him why he did that and if it helped him work through his grief.

He said that he used to run track after his dad left his mom when he was a teenager, and that’s how he dealt with the anger and hurt–he literally ran from it, and after a while, he had run through it. Atht eage of fifty, he couldn’t run for that long of a time, so he turned to walking. The mix of sun, air, nature, time alone, time with God, physical movement, and a daily routine began to change him and within a few months, he had gone from being an absolute hermit who lived off of anti-depressants into a lean walker with a bit of light in his eyes.

He had found his own way to heal his soul. And it was based off something he did in the past, something that had helped him before.

We have the tools and experience, and we came upon them naturally. Our bodies and spirits know what works for us. We’re naturally drawn to something–walking, journaling, classes, talking it out, the power of music, whatever it is, for a reason and not just by happenstance.

You know how to do this. Heal yourself. You’ve done it before.

It’s not that you don’t need help, trust me, we all need help, but you at least have a few tools in the toolshed–something to get you started. Use them. Look back and examine how you got through tough times. How did you make it through?

What’s two or three things that seemed to help you dig yourself out of that hole? Try using them again.

For me, it was the pen. I kept writing. I kept working through my grief on the page. Every day. Many times a day. I also started painting again. I realized that when I’m painting or gardening or cooking or writing, I feel most like “me.” Those are my natural states. That’s where all time ceases to exist and my mind and my hands become one. I forget my situation, the details, my sorrow.

I also returned to college. I needed a combination of something as familiar as gardening–something I’ve done all my life–with the newness of college. The exhilaration and challenge of buying books, studying, and showing up some place a couple of times a week was good for me. It was scary, yes, but scary meant I was alive again.

At the age of 44, I walked down the aisle in my graduation robes.


I leaned over my booksigning table and told this sweet, quiet woman with long brown hair to give it some time. Do something she liked or at least could tolerate. Be gentle with herself, but that “she” the essence, the joy, the person she always knew would return. Be patient and envision herself whole again.


This morning, as I type these words, I have a dirt under my fingernails. It’s spring and I’m busy planting flats and flats of impatiens–or as my kids called them, “poppers.” The English call them “Busy Lizzies.”

When my fingers dig into the cool, damp earth, everything else falls away.

Trust your path. Trust that you know how to do this. How to get over grief. Trust that in time, you will look and feel like yourself again. It won't be the old you. A lot has happened. You've changed. But you will feel like yourself. Joy and purpose will return.

~Carol D. O’Dell

Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

available on Amazon

Family Advisor at

Syndicated Blog at

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

It's the Simple Things You Miss--A Mother's Day Remembrance

It's the simple things I miss.

Whenever I see a mother and daughter walking into a store, my heart longs a little. My mother had Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and I thought she slowed me down, kept me from being somewhere, doing something important. I thought I was too busy for all this.

Still, we had our sweet times, and yes, I miss her in the simplest of ways.

Someone to be with. Someone who knows me better than I wanted her to.

Enjoy this excerpt from my book, Mothering Mother:

When I Miss Her

I miss Mother when I go to the grocery store. Since I’m no longer eligible to park in the parking spaces for the handicapped, I must walk by the light blue and white lines as I head across the parking lot that no longer takes me ten minutes to cross. I see Mother grip the handle of the grocery cart and remember the freedom this rolling walker gave her.

I still see her curved spine dipping, her stockings slowly sagging from above her knees and eventually bunching around her ankles. I see her silhouette, complete with a bright blue nylon cap and its hundreds of petal-shaped pieces that made her head look like a massive flower. Some people loved her hat, others made fun of it, snickered about it behind our backs, but there were a few who found her and her blue hat endearing.

I miss her as I pass by the bananas. She said they gave her potassium and ate one a day. I had to buy seven a week—not six, not eight—though I often cheated, hoping to tide her over a day or two. Sometimes I get the urge to eat one in case I, too, am low on potassium. Any fruit she ate had to be peeled, cored and washed until it practically no longer resembled anything that ever lived. Apples were pale and tinged brown, grapes looked naked and embarrassed without their skins.

I miss her when I pass the Little Debbie display. Her face would light up at the sound of me opening the cellophane wrapper of an oatmeal pie.

I miss not picking up her half gallon of milk, her apple juice and her frozen dinners. I knew which ones she liked—the meatloaf, beef tips and flounder, nothing with pasta, very little chicken. Ice-cream bars remind me of her dying, not living. I can’t bring myself to eat one, or even buy them anymore.

I miss her small talk with the cashier, the slightly condescending way she treated the help, and the times she surprised me with genuine kindness and humor.

As time went on, she took forever to get out her wallet, and two forevers to pull out her credit cards. She could no longer differentiate a Visa card from a debit card, from a license. She’d just let them pick, holding the plastic squares out innocently like a hand of playing cards. I always tried to catch her before she let strangers rifle through her entire wallet and checkbook.

By then, some of her prejudices had diminished and she chitchatted with anyone who caught her eye, regardless of race, which was a pleasant change, though unreliable. She insisted the baggers carry our groceries to the car, no matter how few we had, and she saw no need to tip them. I’d slip them a dollar or two after buckling her in. Tipping never was her thing.

Now I just go to the store like anyone else. No one to slow me down, no one to check on, no bananas to count, no Little Debbies to hide so she won’t eat them all in two days.

It’s just ordinary, and what once seemed a bother, is now missed.


Happy Mother's Day, mom.

Now you go everywhere with me. In my heart.

~Carol D. O'Dell

Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

available on Amazon

Family Advisor at

Syndicated blog at, Publishers