By Joe Darby
Well, I’m back. After an absence of a few years of writing columns for the Natchitoches Parish Journal, I’m going to give another shot at expressing myself more or less regularly in these spaces.
You may remember that I had put aside my pen, so to speak, because it was becoming more and more difficult to come up with an interesting topic week after week. Heck, I also just felt myself getting older and perhaps was trying to rid myself of some of my obligations and duties, if that makes sense.
But my life has changed completely in the interim. And not in a good way at all. I consider myself as more or less a private person when it comes to the important issues, to the things that really matter. But in my first column back, I’m going to share what’s happened to me. And what has happened has been the most difficult, sad and heart-wrenching thing that I have ever experienced. I have more time on my hands now and, although I’m certainly older than I was when I previously ended my columns, I now need to find something constructive to do.
So, a few weeks back I had to place my beloved wife Mary, who is known to some of you, in a nursing home because of advanced dementia. I don’t really know where to begin in trying to describe what has happened. I have been filled with depression, loneliness, grief and guilt. Guilt, because although I know what was done had to be done, I still wonder — did I betray my love, by sending her away from her home? Should I have kept her here a while longer, even though taking care of her properly and safely had reached a point that I could no longer fulfill?
Her daughter by her first marriage, Shannon, was an absolute indispensable help to me. She would come up here four days a week, from her home in the Baton Rouge area, to help me take care of Mary, who could no longer take care of any of her own basic needs. There is no way at all that I could have gotten through this without my amazing step daughter.
But there came a time when, physically and mentally, we had reached our limits. We anticipated the day when Mary would leave our home with dread, doubt, fear and, as I said guilt. But Mary had begun to get up on her own in the middle of the night and fell several times. Short of staying awake 24 hours a day on alert, that was a danger that we could not live with. More than once Shannon and I would say to each other, as the day approached, something like, “Well, do you think it’s a little too soon? Should we keep her home for a couple of more weeks?” But always in the background loomed the inevitable — that for Mary’s own safety, she was going to have to have full time professional care.
In the last few weeks before the departure, more and more often she became unsure of who I really was. Sometimes she would tell me I wasn’t her husband and that I was not to be trusted. She wondered what kind of bad medicines I was giving her. At other times she knew I was Joe and she would look at me with the sweetest smile in the world and tell me how much she loved me. That, my friends, was absolutely heartbreaking. And the memory of that smile, my friends, has brought tears to my eyes as I write this.
I want to mention a wonderful lady, Erin Boyt, whom Mary and I had contacted through the Council on Aging many, many months ago, seeking support for our situation. Erin gave us both great counsel and advice and then as Mary’s cognizance lessened, gave continued moral assistance to me. She was always upbeat, caring and wise. How could I have gotten through this without Erin?
Also, toward the end, Shannon and I did have invaluable physical help from a sitter. A terrific lady, Ann Smith, came by three days a week. She was compassionate, knew how to make Mary laugh and was experienced in caring for dementia patients. Mary was also under hospice care and the hospice staff were a group of wonderful women who met Mary’s medical and bathing needs.
But, finally, the day came. Because Mary’s three children and her sister live in the Baton Rouge area, forming a pool of four potential frequent visitors as opposed to just me up here in Natchitoches, I agreed for my lady to be placed in a nursing home down there. From what I have seen, it has to be one of the best facilities for dementia care in the state.
However, I miss my Mary terribly and am prone to breaking out in tears at any moment. When she was first placed in the home she was quite unhappy and that added to Shannon’s and my grief. But in recent visits, she has seemed more content and has known me every time I have seen her. That helps a little. I’m seeing a professional counselor and I think she is going to help me a lot.
So, there, I have bared my soul and perhaps have written some things that my precious wife would not ever have wanted to be made public. But I expect that one day when she and I are reunited above, she will understand and forgive.
So, it’s just me and my great little poodle mix dog, Baby. I rattle around the empty house, doing basic housekeeping, reading my many books and working on my coin and stamp collections. I’m going to get through this (there was a time when I wasn’t sure that was the case). But I know I am not alone. I have the love and moral support of family, none of whom live in the Natchitoches area, and also of friends.
And, finally, I want to say that I never realized how widespread this insidious disease of dementia is. Almost invariably, when I mention my situation to someone, they will reply, that they had an aunt, a grandparent or even a parent who is afflicted by the same thing. There are so many good folks out there who are affected by this. And, over and over, I have heard that it is more difficult on the caregiver than on the patient, because the patient will tend more and more to just live in the moment. For those of you who have experienced what I have, God bless you. I know you understand.