Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Blogger: Molly Best Tinsley, Author of Entering the Blue Stone

What happens when one's larger than life military parents: disciplined, distinguished, exacting, begin sliding out of control? The General struggles to maintain his invulnerable facade against Parkinson's disease; his lovely wife manifests a bizarre dementia. Their three grown children, desperate to save the situation, convince themselves of the perfect solution: an upscale retirement community. But as soon as their parents have been resettled within its walls, the many imperfections of its system of care begin to appear.

Charting the line between comedy and pathos, Molly Best Tinsley's memoir, Entering the Blue Stone, dissects the chaos at the end of life and discovers what shines beneath: family bonds, the dignity of even an unsound mind, and the endurance of the heart.

Search for the Soul
by Molly Best Tinsley

Entering the Blue Stone is a memoir of my parents’ final years, when my father was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and my mother was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My siblings and I had to move them from their home to an independent living apartment in a continuing care facility, then to the assisted living wing, and finally to the nursing home on the bottom floor. It’s a fairly common experience nowadays, but it feels extraordinary when it happens to you, a cross between a comedy of errors, a crusade for humane treatment, and, of course, a prolonged funeral.

At first my motive in writing was to tell a cautionary tale so that other families might begin this end-of-life process with more information. And certainly there are plenty of advisories in our story. But what we went through wasn’t just an ordeal. The experience reawakened deep connections with my siblings and also a love for our parents we had simply taken for granted over the years. We laughed together as much as we cried. As a family, we were navigating a crazy world. How many times we felt as if the administrative staff had lost their minds while those with diagnosed dementia exemplified grace and a certain common sense! And that feeling led to the most important insight of all—the loss of logic, cognition, and many aspects of personality does not strip the elderly of their humanity. They must still be acknowledged as emotional individuals, unique souls.

After two years, our parents received their final “demotion” to the nursing unit. Following horrific actions on the part of the staff, which I recount in Blue Stone, my father survived there exactly two weeks. Our mother’s journey would be very different. My brother checked in on her every day; my sister and I flew in for a weekend a month and spent long stretches with her in what became the Alzheimer’s ward. And we began to look forward to these visits!

Time stopped, to-do lists were left at the door—we settled into the lounge and chatted with our mother and any other resident who happened by. We introduced ourselves again and again, often to the same person. We learned to watch for cues and listen for subtext in these conversations. If we could let go of our need for them to “make sense,” they often did make sense. We learned that this memory impairment business takes countless forms—Ray never lost the gallantry of gentleman; Marie never lost her ability to find the right tone and timing in her verbal responses, even if the words themselves were “off.” Louise retained her ability to play solitaire, and to clunk around in Dr. Scholl’s wood-soled sandals.

I guess the “moral of the story,” as my dad used to say, was to sink into the experience instead of fighting it—instead of grieving, or resenting, the severely diminished capacities of the elderly, to acknowledge their alternate universe and appreciate the signs of the special spirits which remain.

Air Force brat Molly Best Tinsley taught on the civilian faculty at the United States Naval Academy for twenty years and is the institution’s first professor emerita. Author of My Life with Darwin (Houghton Mifflin) and Throwing Knives (Ohio State University Press), she also co-authored Satan’s Chamber (Fuze Publishing) and the textbook, The Creative Process (St. Martin’s). Her fiction has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sandstone Prize, and the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been read and produced nationwide.

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