When I was a young boy, our family vacations consisted of basically doing one thing…camping. Now, if you’re thinking about the camping that comes with putting on some really expensive hiking boots, a big back pack and a lot of clothes that have cool brand names like North Face or Patagonia, nope, not that. This kind of camping consisted of my dad hooking up a little pop up camper and we would take off to state and private parks all over Michigan. Eventually, our camping adventures got us around to a good chunk of the Eastern US. And we saw some really cool stuff.
I remember one trip we went to Niagara Falls and then traversed our way down to Washington D.C. I was 8 years old, and I was in awe of everything I saw. The power of the Falls…and the weirdness of the tourist traps all around the Falls. We went to a wax museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I thought it was pretty cool. And then we went to the basement of that place. Good lord. There were torture chambers, an Indian scalping a settler, and for some reason a full scale replication of the moment Lee Harvey Oswald got shot. I swear I am not making this up. That was in the summer of 1970. After that trip to the wax museum, I had nightmares about it until somewhere around 1978.
My brother Paul in the front, Randy next to him, both of them throwing peace signs. Peace signs were very big in 1970. I’m to the left looking very cool and for some reason my elbow is on a pillow. That’s my Dad in the back with our dog, Fluffy, a poodle. Paul recently reminded me that Fluffy went on all of our trips. I totally forgot about that.
On that same trip we went to Washington. Randy, Paul and I rode in the back seat of our 1963 Oldsmobile sedan. If you ever rode in the backseat of a 1960s sedan, you know the middle seat had the hump under your feet where the driveshaft was. The good seats were the window seats. Guess where I usually sat. Yep, on the hump. I was the youngest, so even if I called out “Window!” as we were getting back into the car after getting gas, it didn’t much matter. I made up for the fact that I was always in the middle on the hump by being as annoying as humanly possible. I used to play Trouble by myself, racing the pieces around the board. If you are familiar with the game of Trouble, it has this unique feature called the “pop-o-matic.” I don’t think my brother Paul ever got over the sound of that stupid pop-o-matic going off over and over. Randy would take his knuckles and drill them into my chest until I stopped. Good times!
Washington was amazing. I was a space nerd and a government nerd,(stay back ladies) so I loved every minute of it. We went to the Smithsonian, the Capital, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument. We took the elevator up to the top of the Washington Monument, and then took the stairs down. We counted the stairs on the way down, and if I remember right, we all came up with a different number.
We went to a lot of different places over the years. We saw the Wisconsin Dells, the Smokey Mountains and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and eventually making it all the way down to Florida. I saw and swam in the ocean for the first time on one of the Florida trips, and I fell in love with it. The waves were huge one day, and Paul and I spent the entire day body surfing. The public beach was closed, so we went down to where the hotels had beaches. We probably shouldn’t have been in the water, we probably could’ve died, but hey, it was the seventies. We rode thousands of miles without even thinking about putting on a seatbelt. What’s a few big waves? Whenever I am near the ocean, the smell and taste of it brings me back to that day.
And everywhere we went, we camped. I didn’t know what the inside of a hotel looked like in those days. My dad was a factory worker, so we were a long way from rich. But we always took a vacation. And the pop up was a permanent fixture of those vacations.
And the most important feature of any campground? It had to have a lake or a pool to swim in. Randy and Paul were both strong swimmers. Me, not so much, at least not at first. When we stayed at a little campground on Lake Missaukee in Northern Michigan, my mom would pay me a nickel every time I put my head underwater. I did not get rich. I think I made less than a dollar. Eventually I caught on. The funny thing is, my mom never learned how to swim. She was out there in knee deep water helping me get over my fear, and she couldn’t get over hers.
The four boys in my Mom’s life. Once again, the stupid peace signs. I’m behind my brother’s foot. If a park had a pool, it was cool.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and camping with my own kids did I realize what a massive endeavor those trips had to be. All the planning with the food, where to stay, what to go see, and just getting from place to place with a paper map had to be a daunting task.
And here’s the thing about my family. My dad went to work and made the money. He worked a ton of hours and worked very hard to provide for us. My mom did everything else. Everything. We were three growing boys eating everything in sight, and she had to go to the grocery store and figure out how to budget for it. Doctors appointments, school functions, she had a handle on all of it. Having two kids of my own I know how hard this is. I tried to help Holly whenever I could, and the two of us got through those years. My mom did most of it on her own.
My mom is far from perfect. She is a stubborn Dutch lady, very stuck in her ways. She can be old school Reformed church judgmental. And now a days, we would probably say that she had some control issues. Unfortunately her being in charge all the time left my dad ill equipped to deal with the real world. I thank God everyday for my brother Paul and my sister in law Catherine for taking over his finances. But my mom loves us all very much and would do anything for all of us. And when my brothers and I were kids, she was in charge.
And those camping trips? Her ideas. We went to Huntsville, Alabama because that is where NASA has a Space and Rocket Center. Who knew that? She knew that. All I know is that I got to see a fully assembled Saturn V rocket. I got to watch astronauts training in a big water tank getting ready for their mission to Skylab. Priceless memories.
And those memories I can still look back on and smile. But for my mom, those memories are going fast. You see, my 83 year old mother, the rock of our family, the planner, the Chief Financial Officer, the get things done leader, is in a nursing home with dementia.
I try to get over there every Friday to sit and talk with her for a little while. Sometimes I make it. Sometimes, I am ashamed to say, I am too busy. Got too much going on, Dad.I’ll try to get there, I’ll say. I am not a perfect son. But I try.
My dad goes to see her everyday. They have been married 60 years. And they still love each other very much.
If you ever have experienced a loved one going through dementia or Alzheimer’s, it is frustrating and heartbreaking at the same time. My mom seems ok at times. She’ll ask about my boys, and sometimes remember what they do and where they live. Other times, I have to tell her the same thing three or four times in the same visit.
I’ve always heard that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s forget the recent stuff but can remember stuff from long ago. But that is not true with my mom. She knows who I am, she knows about my family, even if sometimes I need to gently remind her. One blessing is she has forgotten about my cancer, which used to distress her big time. She would ask about it all the time. Now it seems to be gone out of her memory bank.
But she is starting to lose her past. She can’t remember where she worked 10 years ago. I tell her about some family history stuff. She looks at me blankly.
But what really has gotten to me is that she has forgotten about the camping trips. One particular family story involves us driving down to Florida and getting caught in a snowstorm somewhere in Indiana. We were involved in an accident with a snow plow in which for some reason that I can’t remember, she was driving. We got pulled out of the snow and eventually made it to Florida. It’s a well known story in our family. I asked her about it the other day. She couldn’t remember any of it. When she saw the shocked look on my face, I think she knew she SHOULD remember this story, but she couldn’t. Her hands balled up into fists, the frustration of not remembering on her face, and she started to cry. I quickly changed the subject and tried not to cry myself.
The preconceived notions of what dementia is and how it affects a person are being thrown out the window by me. The idea that present memories will go away but past memories are somehow safe, is no longer valid. Similar to cancer, it seems that dementia is unique to the individual. Similar to cancer, the frustration with treatments can be debilitating.
And, similar to cancer, the whole experience can be heartbreaking.
I have decided that when my mom passes, I will try to remember her not as the little old lady sitting on a bed, smoothing out her blankets again and again as she tries to remember bits and pieces of her life. I want to remember my mom for who she was when she was in charge, leading us around the country that expanded my world beyond the little town of Jenison, Michigan.
Her hard work made it possible for me to go swimming in the ocean, and see a rocket that could go to the moon.
Thank you, Mom
I will love you forever.