Robert Benson is a critically acclaimed writer who has published nine works on the contemplative life, including Living Prayer and A Good Life. He is a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and a member of the Friends of Silence & of the Poor, an international ecumenical prayer community. He leads retreats and workshops on prayer, writing, and the contemplative life around the country. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
The story of a family helping their mother to face dementia and learning to love each other again in the process.
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Moving Miss Peggy
A Story of Dementia, Courage, and Consolation
By Robert Benson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Robert Benson
All rights reserved.
I See the Water
This is the story of moving Miss Peggy to a new place to live, to a new way of life, to a new kind of reality. All of which became necessary because she has begun to live a life colored by a disease called dementia. All of us who love her have begun to live that new life with her. Some of that story is here as well.
Peggy Jean Siler Benson is her name. She will answer to most any combination of the four. She will also answer to Miss Peggy, Peg, Mother, Mom, and Gran—a collection of names used by her sister, her in-laws, her children, her grandchildren, and her friends—all of whom have come to love her. There is no other category with Miss Peggy—the only people who do not love her are the ones who have not yet met her.
This is only some of her story. It is certainly not her life's story, it is the story of the beginning of the end of her life.
This part of her story is a part in which Miss Peggy has been a champ, though by the time some of you read this, she will likely no longer know that she has been such a champ, no matter how often we try to tell her. She may not even recognize those who have been walking alongside her for many years. She may not even remember that this story was told, or that she wanted it to be told.
"You are going to write about this, aren't you?" she asked one day while we were out for a walk. We had been talking about her sons and her daughter and how the gathering up around her in the previous few weeks and months had drawn her children closer to one another. Her children are separated by some twenty years from oldest to youngest, by the fact that they live in four cities spread across three different states, and by their having chosen to make their lives and their livings in very different ways. We are not the only crowd of children for whom such things are true.
We gently told her that the story of these days of growing darkness in her life was a story that belonged to her and no one else.
"You have to tell it for me," she said. "If we can, we ought to try and help some of those old folks."
To this day it is hard to know whether she was giving a permission or making an assignment. Miss Peggy has always been tricky that way; most mothers are.
For those of us who love her, the pages that follow are not our favorite part of her story. But it is a part of her story which has made us very proud of her.
It is a part of her story that is not easy to tell, for many reasons.
The emotional difficulty is obvious.
Chronologically, the struggle came with recording so many things happening at once over the space of a few short weeks and months; bits and pieces of the story had to be compressed in order to make the telling make any sense at all.
Technically, the telling is difficult as well. We are not professionals caring for a patient; we do not know all the language of professionals nor have we run this course time and again. We are just a crowd of folks who love Miss Peggy and set out to do the best we could to help her move to a new place, help manage her affairs, and help one another along the way.
We do not know exactly where her dementia will lead. Is it solely dementia? Is it going to lead to Alzheimer's? Can it be slowed or turned around? No one knows at this stage, not even the professionals.
However, she said this story was to be told, and so it shall be.
Looking back, it seems as though all of the conversations among the siblings and Miss Peggy were held and the plans put into motion within a few short weeks. It seems as though the whole thing moved very fast. It is not true, really. It took a while for the choices to become clear, to have a quorum of concerned children who knew it was time to recognize the truth about their mother, to talk straight with one another and with her, and to begin to figure out how to take the steps that needed to be taken in order to care for her.
It took us a while to find and do our parts—individually and collectively. But we finally took the first steps, and sometimes first steps are always the hardest ones.
One of the earliest memories of Miss Peggy we have is from the back seat of a Ford Galaxy on a Friday afternoon. Her first two sons were the witnesses, old enough to remember.
We two brothers, the oldest of her children, do not know why these particular weekends were chosen, we were too young to be invited to the family planning meetings. Whatever the adult criteria were, on certain weekends, the four of us would pile into the Galaxy and head north and east to the beach at Daytona.
Those were the days we learned to love the sea and the shore and learned some of the ways of both.
When we set off to Daytona, Dad would be behind the wheel, Mother would be at the other end of the long bench seat of a 1950-something Ford. The two brothers would play in a large sort of "playroom" Dad made by putting suitcases and pillows in the backseat floorboards to a level equaling the seat, and covering the whole business with two or three layers of quilts. Car seats and seat belts were years away.
Our father was pastor of a small church in Orlando in those days. In order to make ends meet, he was a PE teacher at a local high school, a school bus driver, and a day laborer on a construction crew. Our father was also helping to raise young children, raise enough money to keep the small church going, raise his own understanding of what it meant to be a pastor and a preacher, and raise his own sense of self.
For much of that time, the house that our homemaker mother made was comprised of four small rooms in the back of the church. There was a kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms. The congregation entered our house through a door to the left of the chancel. Church school classes were held in the kitchen and the bedrooms of our house on Sundays, as was vacation Bible school in summer.
While Dad would drive, we boys would roughhouse around enough to get in trouble and then be directed to lie still. Mother would lead the songs and hand out the snacks and declare the winner in the "count the cows" game. Sometimes we would nap in order not to get in more trouble. How much trouble could there be? It was only sixty miles.
There was always a moment in the ride to Daytona, to the sea, to the shore, whether the day be sunny and warm or rainy and cold, which it was sometimes, when we would begin to cross a certain set of rolling hills just a few minutes away from the beach itself.
Mother would always be sure to wake us up so we could be on our knees in the back seat and leaning over our folks' shoulders before we got to those hills. The game was on, the game to see who could be the first one to see the ocean.
One of us would shout out that we could see it. Sometimes we could see it, sometimes we just wanted to win.
"I see the water, I see the water," she would sing when we could all see the shore. And we would sing along.
One of our favorite photographs of Miss Peggy was snapped while she was sitting on a beach along the Gulf of Mexico. A good friend had taken her there to rest and recover after a particularly trying time in her life, some four decades after our visit-Daytona-Beach days.
It was a cool day, she had on long pants and a sweater and a hat pulled down tight. She is looking out to sea. It looks to be late in the day but that could just be poetic license talking.
We all can remember sitting with her on one beach or another, staring out to sea at the end of the day, when it is almost time to head for the house and clean up for supper, the time of day when no one wants to admit that the day is coming to a close.
When you sit on the shore looking out to sea, you can sometimes see a storm far off on the horizon. You cannot always tell when it will come ashore—two days, two hours, who knows? You just know that it will come ashore, sooner or later. You look out across the sea and you see the gray patches that say that heavy weather is on its way.
The darkness and the rain will come. And there is no way to avoid it.
In the days when we all began to do the work to be done in order to move Miss Peggy, in the days when the diagnosis of dementia was first made, in the days when we learned to say the word out loud to one another, Miss Peggy would ask a lot of questions. A lot of those questions did not have easy answers.
But everyone my age forgets things, don't they? Isn't there some medicine that can help? I had a good day yesterday, I think I am getting a lot better, don't you? You do know I could not bear to move to a home, don't you?
In a way, Peggy had been sitting on the beach in the evening sun for some time now. An old beach hand, she knew better than any of us that there was a storm coming ashore, a storm that would wash away all of her memories. She did not know exactly what language to use to describe it, but she knew it was coming. She knew it long before we did. And she was fighting it as best she could.
And she still is.
If you call her on the phone, she answers with some funny line. If you show up at her door, she has a wisecrack prepared for when she opens it.
If you take her for a drive, she goes out of her way to point out new buildings and things that are in bloom, even if the buildings have been there for years and the blossoms have faded. If she read the sports section that morning she will always ask how the Titans are doing or what we are to make of Vanderbilt's new coach.
But she knows, she still knows the storm is coming. She knows her world is shrinking, that a kind of darkness will be soon upon her, and it will be sooner rather than later.
She is sitting on the shore, and she can see the gathering clouds more clearly than any of us.
The front edge of the storm that is taking away her memory is now very close. And she, bless her sweet heart, can already feel the mist on her face. Those of us who know her the best and love her the most, those of us who take care of her business and tend to her care are beginning to smell the coming rain and feel the freshening breeze ourselves.
We who love her hope against hope that the storm will somehow move back out to sea, even though we know it will not. We are very afraid for her, and we cannot even begin to imagine how terrifying this change must be to her, no matter how bravely she faces it.
While we were moving Miss Peggy, we learned some new lessons about the woman we love. We learned things about how to care for her in this new world, how to face the dark of the future, and how to fall in love again with our family as we began this new and difficult journey.
The story of Miss Peggy is not ended, but the story of moving her is done. The time to tell that story is now, before the storm sets in completely and takes her away from us and from her own sweet self.
"I see the water, I see the water," she used to sing with her children to celebrate that the beloved shoreline was just in sight.
"I see the storm, I see the storm," is the new verse. The time had come for her children to all sing it along with her.
Excerpted from Moving Miss Peggy by Robert Benson. Copyright © 2013 Robert Benson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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