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Valentine's Day is a celebration of love, remembered or not.

There it was, much to everyone’s excitement, in all of its gaudy decorated glory: the Valentine’s Box sitting proudly in the back of the classroom.  Covered in finger-scalloped crepe paper and shiny hearts of red, white and pink by a few of the teacher’s artistically talented students, its message was clear.  The ordinary, newly transformed cardboard carton became a treasure trove  for valentines: small tokens of affection from one student to another.

At home you either made cards, or your mother bought a couple of books filled with “punch-out” valentines printed on both sides, or a package filled with 36 cards and envelopes for all your little friends – plus one for the teacher.  The day before the 14 of February, as you walked out of the classroom door with your lunchbox, books, papers and coat, the teacher stuck one more printed paper into your outstretched hand which included names of every single boy and girl in the class.  That was her way of saying, “Make sure you give everyone a card.  We don’t want any student to be forgotten.”  That was Valentine’s Day in elementary school.

In high school, they dispensed with such childish frivolities as elaborate Valentine’s Boxes, the day being just another school day, except that everyone was looking forward to the coming Friday night Valentine’s Day dance held in the boy’s gym.  The other exception was the special cards stuffed through the vent slots of certain lockers by handsome young swains and adorable girls, most being part of the popular group — the cliques – the in-kids; then there was everyone else.  That was my group: everyone else.

However, that exclusivity didn’t stop “the-everyone-else group” from having crushes on certain members of the opposite sex with whom no one outside of the cliques had a screaming chance.  For many of us, we took our non-couple status and dared to pursue the unsuspecting hunks on this special day of love by stuffing our own cards through the vent slots of their locker.  

My carefully chosen small token of affection for the dark-haired quarterback, which I signed with a question mark, was a sad-looking street urchin sitting on the curb.  The cover caption read, “Gee, Valentine’s Day ain’t no fun……,” continuing inside with, “…… ‘specially if you don’t got cha one.”  Other than having my English teacher suffer with an acute anxiety attack had I permitted her to read the grammar, the card was a total bust.  Mr. Football Star never knew I existed, and certainly didn’t much care who the unfortunate one might be with a name like question mark.  And that about summed up Valentine’s Day in high school.

Then I grew up, got married and in the doing I acquired my very own permanent and forever Valentine:  Ken.  We continued the romance of Cupid’s work with small tokens of affection on February 14: cards to one another, and cards slipped under everyone’s plate at dinner time when the children were small – and not so small — or a handful of candy hearts in their lunch box – just to say “I love you.” In return, their handmade cards for us were taped to the living room window for all to see.  And then the children grew up, married their own Valentines and moved away leaving just the two of us once again.

One year, while driving in the car I heard a radio DJ announce a Valentine’s Day contest with first prize being a get-away weekend for two at a romantic resort up the coast from San Francisco.  To win, all the contestants had to do was be the maker of the most original Valentine.  “Just mail your entry to the radio station where it will be judged, and the decision of the judges is final.”  “Simple enough, I can do that,” I said to me. Based on a childhood poem about a tin whistle, I cut up some tin cans, fashioned them into a greeting card with my own original “tin” verse and sent it to the radio station.

Did I win the weekend for two at the quaint romantic inn on the coast?  No.  But I did win 3rd prize:  A champagne basket and a dozen long-stemmed red roses would be delivered to my Valentine at his work the Friday before February 14, which was Saturday.

Wouldn’t Ken be pleased to have such a surprise Valentine delivered to his office?  I was excited.  However, on that very Friday, February 13, I received a second call from the radio station telling me they were soooo sorry, but deliveries were limited to San Francisco only.  No deliveries to the East Bay where we lived and Ken worked.  My surprise bubble had been popped. “But you can come over and pick up the basket yourself,” encouraged the DJ, still apologizing.  I agreed that we would do that.

It stormed 24 hours straight on Valentine’s Day.  Nevertheless, we sloshed across the Bay Bridge, meandered up and down Market Street through sheets of torrential rain finally spotting the florist where the prizes were displayed in the window.  Ken pulled into a vacant place next to a flooding curb – into which I could not avoid stepping.  He waited patiently in the car while I dashed through the rain into the shop where I picked up my prize – his small token of affection from me.  “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I crooned, handing him the beautifully filled basket — me and the prize dripping wet.  I’m still not sure if he felt the water-drenched trip was worth the Valentine, but he gave me a quick kiss adding – almost grumbling — “Thank You,” as we began the soggy trip home.

He gave the champagne to our neighbor while I rearranged the long-stemmed roses.  They were lovely on our intimate table in front of the fireplace where I finally surprised him with a cozy dinner for two.

There have been many other days celebrating St. Valentine, other dinners and other roses –with  none quite as memorable.  Never, have I made a more supreme effort to say “I love you” than with that small token of affection.  Nor, do I suppose, has he ever ventured out in such miserable weather just to make me happy while I was striving so hard to make him happy.  A paradox, you might say?  Probably — but such are the Valentine’s Days of devotion to someone you love — and to long-term married life.

Presently, I do believe Cupid’s quiver is empty at our house, but the cute cherub still hangs out here reminding me that small — and large — tokens of affection aren’t always tangible.  Nor do I need to get shot with one of his tiny pointed arrows to remind me that I do love this man.  I don’t love the strangeness that makes him who he is not — stealing him from me —  or the demons who keep him imprisoned within himself.  It’s Ken, who is losing his battle with AD — who has fought so hard for so long, that I love — and such is Valentine’s Day when you live with Alzheimer’s disease.

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This morning one of my emails was titled “We will NEVER see ads like this again.”  A truer statement was never spoken with the viewer’s emotions running from a hardy laugh to severe annoyance: weight loss using sanitized tape worms; the ever-sought-after freckle cream – probably from the 1920s — a very young Ronald Reagan, Lucy and Desi Arnez, plus a couple of babies, and a few doctors endorsing some of the popular brands of cigarettes. Others ads from the 1950s demonstrated the arrogance of Madison Avenue in its view of “the little woman,” and the ultimate of ads approving male chauvinism during the peak years.  But the one that really grabbed me was a poster featuring a thin, angry old man waving his cane as a possible weapon.  Printing was simple and to the point “for prompt control of Senile Agitation – THORAZINE.”

“SENILE AGITATION!”  That was a new term for me, and I thought I had heard them all.  Yet there it was in all of its stylized advertising glory; another reference to Alzheimer’s disease easily dismissed as nothing more than a confused grumpy old man. One more reminder of 50-plus years wasted when early attention to this devastating illness might have brought a cure closer.

Frustration dismissed, I wondered about Thorazine, the wonder drug to calm the irritable elder.  Was it a flash in the pan of long ago, just hype for the public, or did it have merit?   I looked it up on the Internet, and found, that indeed, it did have merit and was the first drug breakthrough for help with mental illnesses.

Developed in 1950 Chlorpromazine (CPZ) was a banner achievement for both the medical field and for patients alike.  Marketed in the U.S. as Thorazine (and Largactil in other parts of the world) it was the first synthesized drug with specific antipsychotic action.

That statement made me go “knock, knock” on the door of my memory bank recalling a time when state mental hospitals were commonplace; a last resort where desperate families unable to cope placed their “crazy” loved ones.  The state facilities, under-funded, over-crowded and under-staffed were unable to cope as well, and the hospitals became ugly and shocking “snake pits.”  Early in our marriage Ken and I saw a movie with that title: “The Snake Pit” starring Olivia de Havilland.  An over simplification of her character’s illness was, no doubt, depression which led to horrifying delusions where she saw herself surrounded by countless, slithering snakes.  I suppose it was our first awareness of ordinary people suffering from psychotic problems.  Yet, even in our youthful innocence the movie and the growing social crisis were tucked away in the back of our mental filing cabinet.    

A few years later Ken’s cousin, who was a fabulous school teacher, but suffered from episodes of severe depression tried to commit suicide — several times.  Her husband, at a loss for any solution had her confined for a short time in a state mental institution where she received electric shock treatments, better known as electroconvulsive therapy. At the time I thought how barbaric and wondered if there was no other kind of treatment.  There wasn’t – yet.

Reading about CPZ I found it was considered the single greatest advance in psychiatric hospitals worldwide and became the prototype for phenothiazine, which would later be developed into a class of drugs comprising several other agents, all for the treatment of mental illness.  Furthermore, the availability of this kind of medication began to curtail the indiscriminate use of electroconvulsive therapy and psychosurgery.   Fortified with Thorazine as an alternative treatment, the new phenomenon also became the driving force behind the movement to deinstitutionalize the nation’s mental hospitals.  No doubt those state hospitals, those snake pits, had their share of dementia-related diseases.  In hindsight we know that Dr. Alzheimer’s first case study was found in an insane asylum in 1906 where treatment and conditions were probably even more deplorable.

After reading about Thorazine and how thrilled everyone must have been at that breakthrough, I will now consider that I have been too critical of the medical community. (Although I still believe Alzheimer’s and related diseases would be sitting motionless in a dusty back room had it not been for persons of note: namely former President Ronald Reagan, Sargent Shriver, Michael J. Fox, and others, who brought The Dementia Umbrella diseases to their full prominence finally receiving the medical attention they deserve.)  I have been critical of precious time vanished while waiting for results from research, impatient for concrete solutions.  However, I also believe it’s easy and understandable for me to be restless while Ken continues to slip away and all I want is something to make him better, to bring him back to where he was, to where we were. I just want my husband back.  So we, the loved ones, can’t help but be anxious for researchers to find a cure, or at least a way to effectively manage Alzheimer’s and all of the other Dementia-related diseases.

Through technology, we hold unending information in the palm of our hand in an electronic device no bigger than a deck of cards.  Doesn’t it seem logical; somehow, that knowledge, information, technology and treatment for the ill should be as available as well?  The answer ought to be, “Of course,” but that’s just not true especially for those with mental problems and diseases.  I suppose the mind is like space: so much of it is yet uncharted, so we need a big breakthrough – like Thorazine — and while we are waiting for one, we tend to be impatient.

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For Charlie Brown’s group happiness is a warm puppy.  For most kids it’s Santa Claus in the mall, Christmas morning and a new bike.  For lovers it’s their next meeting; a bride and groom their wedding day; students – graduation; for the unemployed it’s finding a job, and to a billionaire watching his stocks double is cause to gleefully celebrate.  For a young couple happiness comes with a new baby, and baby’s first smile brings immeasurable joy to its mother.   Happiness can be as constant as the surf splashing against the sand, elusive as shadows on a moonless night, and as fragile as a dandelion puff.  Happiness is many things to many people, but for me happiness is a choice.

I used to be a pouter.  Not recently, but when I was a young teen I somehow came to the belief that if I looked sad there would be a vast number of boys and girls who would want to be my friend if only to cheer me.  Illogical conclusion: sad had more appeal than happy. 

Our group of girls often went to local teen dances on Friday and Saturday nights.  The adorable bouncy girls with smiling faces were soon asked to dance while I sat against the wall, arms folded across my chest looking glum, hoping a cute guy, or not so cute, would take pity and ask me to dance.  I was the absolute archetype of a wall flower, and I didn’t know why, nor did any of my friends tell me to put a smile on my face and look happy.  Maybe my girl friends didn’t see me as a sad-looking dance dunce, but I was and I didn’t like it

Eventually I figured it all out.  It was more of a growing process, a maturing process when realization cleared the mystery concerning adorable girls.  It wasn’t about adorable, but more about bouncy and smiling faces.  My friends looked happy and I didn’t.  No one, even the kindest of cute guys, or not so cute, wanted to be stuck for any amount of time with Saddie Sad Sack.  So it was that I began my long journey in choosing to be happy.  Happiness didn’t come from without, it came from within.

Happy is an easy choice when the fates smile, when Mr. Right comes along, when babies arrive in addition to promotions and salary increases, when a new house is acquired and the lawn gets cut.   Just as in the story books:  “And they lived happily ever after.”

Time for a reality check:  Snow White’s babies had colic and threw up all over her favorite dress (actually her only dress), Cinderella’s prince was a lazy oaf who expected her to run the entire kingdom by herself, and Beauty’s beast, after all was said and done, turned out to be a grumbling turkey still decked out in the clothing and skin of a handsome fairy-tale prince. 

In spite of it all Snow, Cinder and Beau decided to work through life’s problems with their men, Charming, Charming and Charming, seeking help if needed setting happiness, once again, as their goal.   The babies grew into delightful children; the lazy oaf, threatened by Cinder’s Fairy Godmother who arrived with a pumpkin and a bunch of rats, fully accepted his responsibilities.  Under the prince’s guidance the kingdom flourished even without the touch of Godmother’s magic wand.  The doctor assigned to our snarling, growling beast removed several irritating rose thorns from Charming’s bottomside, which had been hidden under his very tight tights, returning him immediately to the prince of Beauty’s dreams.   

Life does ebb and flow.  While we would all like to remain in the flow, it just doesn’t work that way.  Adversity is a part of everyone’s life no matter what their rank or station.

If we are smart, during the good times when choosing to be happy is easy, we need to recognize our bounty of blessings and place them in a memory bank for future reference.  It’s during the ebb, the tough times, getting caught in the under current of misery when it’s difficult to say, “I’m happy.”  Yes, life can be miserable, and at times we all walk through the Valley of Doom and Gloom.  Interesting place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there.  Remaining in misery unless there is a clinical problem is also a choice.

It is not my intention to be a Pollyanna, constantly in denial, never acknowledging that things may go wrong, did go wrong, are wrong, or that life can become an overwhelming challenge, or that life is, at times, the absolute pits.  However, it is my intention to advise all the Snow Whites,  Cinderells,  Beautys, and their Prince Charmings to recognize that life does have a mean left hook and when you get whacked it’s best to meet it head on.  Dodging, denying, and hiding under the covers won’t make adversity go away.

When Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it was a tragic blow even though we were not surprised.  Knowing it was deeply entrenched in the family we had  thought we could somehow sidestep it if he ate right, exercised, and continued to live a clean, wholesome life.  We were wrong.  “Your husband has Alzheimer’s.”  That’s what the doctor said and that’s how he said it.

Did we go home happy, smiling, clicking our heels about his disease?  Of course not!  No matter how well prepared we were, the news was devastating.  We were sad.  We cried and finally we accepted the diagnosis, and then we took a road trip, planning to squeeze everything we could into a limited amount of time before the disease robbed Ken of his ability to be Ken.

I have long understood about the link between acceptance and happy before I listened to Michael J. Fox as he was interviewed for his book, “Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist – Always Looking Up,” but it was good to hear him verbalize what he too had discovered.  It was accepting his disease that finally brought him to happiness after making peace with Parkinson’s and then moving forward with his life.  Fox also emphasized how awful it would be to live in despair, but on the plus side mentioned how this adversity had led to so many amazing people and places.  I couldn’t agree more for I too have rediscovered the goodness, compassion, love and concern which is found in good people everywhere.

So I choose to be happy.  I answer the phone with a cheerful voice and keep the “Woe is me” off limits. Do I have sad times?  Do I cry?  Certainly, but I don’t remain in the negative because I choose to be happy.  There is not room for both.  My new answer to, “How are things going?” is “Smoothly.”  My grandson, Brain, tells me a better word is “Swimmingly,” whatever that means.  But then again “Swimmingly” might be a good response if it means going against the current and making it?  Perhaps I will change “Smoothly” to “Swimmingly.” 

Looking way down from where I perch in the sunlight I see the dark pit of despair, but using my right to choose I choose to not go there.  Being happy while coping with any of the Devil’s diseases is something one must choose to be on a daily basis.  That’s why each and every morning I remind myself, “Today, I choose to be happy.”

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 Several years ago, when the husband of my friend, Madalyn, was well into severe Alzheimer’s and Ken’s disease just beginning, the two of us went to several support group meetings.   The speaker one evening was a health-care professional; the title of her presentation was dementia.  How often both Madalyn and I had heard the word interspersed with Alzheimer’s, making us wonder if our husbands had Alzheimer’s or were they demented, having dementia.  Were the guidelines established enough that we could tell one disease from another?

“Dementia,” the speaker explained, “is the umbrella, and under that umbrella the medical community is placing what they believe to be related diseases, even though some people are diagnosed as having dementia.”  She went on to explain dementia as a group of symptoms caused by changes in brain function, or a decline in cognition.  Though defined, it still left us a bit baffled.  However, with so little known about the actual workings of a diseased brain and other neurological disorders, dementia as an umbrella seemed to make sense, especially when the speaker placed Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and MS (multiple sclerosis) under the umbrella.  No doubt she included other diseases lesser known to Madalyn and me totalling more than 75 in all, but the link placing them under one umbrella made good sense.  Whether the dementia symptoms may later change and develop into any of the encompassed diseases wasn’t a part of her topic, nor am I a medical person who could make such a determination, but it would seem reasonable to presume that the answer could be “yes.”

Over these past six years, as I have journeyed with Ken into the fog of Alzheimer’s it seems as if the cases under the umbrella are becoming almost epidemic.  I often hear people say, “It’s because everyone is living longer.”  That observation conjures up another burning question.  Is it inevitable that living longer will bring the majority of four score and younger people into the hopelessness of brain disease?

When Ken and I first married we were best friends with three other couples.  We were not a group, but they were best friends, nonetheless, with us, and we have kept in touch with all of them through the years.  Today, two of the women and two of the men are under the umbrella diagnosed with short-term memory loss, two with Alzheimer’s and one with dementia.  All of the disorders began somewhere in their mid to late 70s.  Yet, with our large circle of friends and acquaintances I have also observed early-onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and one death from ALS.

The mother of Barbara, my friend with short-term memory loss, was sent off to a state mental hospital in her mid 50s with what they diagnosed as brain deterioration.  Was it actually early-onset Alzheimer’s?  Earl, who has dementia, is the son of man who suffered most of his life with severe Parkinson’s.  Our  daughter, Debbie, had a favorite beau during their teen years who tumbled dramatically into full-blown Parkinson’s in his early 30s, as did celebrity Michael J. Fox.

With the power of his celebrity Fox brought world-attention, and hopefully more research, to his disease.  Of course, the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, brought the same extraordinary attention to Alzheimer’s during his 10-year battle with the disease, as did movie great Charlton Heston.  People no longer talk about a second childhood, senility, brain deterioration or sun-downer’s disease.  These umbrella diseases — with people of all ages becoming victims — are no longer swept under the carpet to be ignored as just some old folks’ ailment.

If there is a question here it would be:  Will there be a breakthrough in finding a cure, or at least management for these dreadful diseases?  If so, when? And, if a reliable treatment for AIDS was found in a relatively short period of time, what’s holding up research for The Dementia Umbrella?   According to a recent paper from Johns Hopkins the future looks alarming for 1 out of 2 people who will get Alzheimer’s if they live long enough.  That’s 50 percent.  Research and solutions are musts for the coming generations.

Presently, there are no real answers, but there are some quiet observations.  In watching my friends and reading about Fox, Reagan, Heston and others, their spouses are incredible as they walk with, sit by, and worry about those they love.  Collectively, they have all remained devoted which is not only inspirational, but encouraging to all of us caregivers traveling that same unfamiliar path.  The battle which goes on under The Dementia Umbrella can bring out the worst in people or it can bring out the best.  I don’t know everyone struggling under this covering, but those I see, read about and know are phenomenal human beings. Kudos to these caregivers everywhere.

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“Hi.  This is Marvalee.”  “How good it is to hear from you,” I replied, “and what a nice surprise.  How long will you be here?”  Her voice always sounded bright and chipper with a touch of breathiness; the breathy part was that of a singer, and Marvalee was not only a singer, but a dancer as well, and had been most of her life. “I’m here from Maui visiting my mom,” she explained. “It’s her birthday you know.”  Yes, I knew, and I remembered the gala birthday parties Ken and I attended celebrating with Eva as her friends and family gathered to sing and dance away the previous year.  Marvaleee continued, “If you are free, I would love to come over and sing a few songs for Ken.” “That would be just lovely,” I answered.

The daughter of Ed and Eva, who were also entertainers – musicians —  and I use the past tense because they no longer perform.  Ed has long since passed on, a victim of Alzheimer’s, and following his inability to continue as their leader, members of the colorful band dispersed and retired.   Soon after Ed’s death, Mother Eva was stricken with the same dreaded disease, and has been with a caregiver for nearly ten years. 

The family, all from Hawaii, came to the Mainland to entertain in the best way they knew: songs and dancing Hawaiian style.   During the heyday of luaus, fire dances, flowing muumuus and island shirts, the band was very successful.  Natural musicians, most played by ear providing what Ken and I called the most danceable music in town.

Attending a luau whenever we could get tickets, Ken soon became known as a good sport.  Catching the eye of one of the gorgeous dancers, he was soon invited on stage to learn the hula or some other exotic dance.  My husband could be such a clown,and loved being in the limelight.  Wrapped in a grass skirt and wearing a lei he swayed back and forth as if he knew what he was doing.  He didn’t.  When the music stopped, Ken and the chosen others, bowed to a cheering round of applause, and returned to their tables – laughing.  He was, as always, a fun, if not an embarrassing, date.  And Marvalee, whose beauty and dancing rivaled no one, could always find him no matter where we were sitting.

 Soon after she called, the bell rang.  My door opened wide welcoming Marvalee and her friend, Mary.  The two burst into song, “Oh you beautiful doll……..”  My spirits were lifted even with my considerable hair loss and scar across my forehead.   Entering, we exchanged hugs and Alohas.  Approaching Ken for the same hug, he stiffened and drew back as I warned them not to get too close, he needed time to be comfortable with newcomers.  He was no longer a good sport, nor was he a fun date, and he didn’t remember Marvalee.

 Living most of her time away from the Mainland, she had no way of knowing how much Ken had regressed.  The fun-loving man she had remembered was gone.  Rather he sat down in a chair and glared at her, his lips drawn in a tight, straight line.  “At times Mama looks at me with those same tight lips,” Marvalee commented, Mary agreeing.  We compared notes.  We hadn’t seen Eva since January, but at the time she smiled at us and while she didn’t know exactly who we were, she knew we were important in her life.  “Probably not any more,” said Marvalee with sadness’.  “Most of the time Mama’s eyes are vacant and she doesn’t remember me – nor any of the family.”

Later Marvalee opened her music case and brought out a polished ukulele.  Strumming a few cords, she adjusted the strings and began.  Lilting strains of Island music filled the room and she began to sing.  They were newer songs than what her father and mother had played, and unfamiliar to Ken.  He sat in his chair, his lips still drawn in a tight, straight line.  Transitioning one song into another, the two women harmonized away the afternoon.  Ken hardly moved a muscle.

Her fingers moved across the strings once again and suddenly familiar music filled the air followed by the memorable lyrics from long ago, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.  You make me happy……..”  It was if the very sun had broken through the clouds.  Ken’s face came alive and he looked over at me, a broad smile erupting on his mouth.  Her words continued, somehow finding a path through the fog of tangled and forgotten memory.  Lovingly he looked at me, just me, and then he winked and pursed his lips as if to blow a quick kiss.   We were two souls locked in a moment of warmth by yesteryear’s melody and words.  A tear or two of happiness spilled down my cheeks, and I felt gratitude for Marvalee’s thoughtfulness and music, and for my brief flash of joy.

Marvalee played a bit longer; songs from the past and Ken continued to smile, but not in the same way and not at me.  Music had reached him, and he must have experienced a spark of reality and realized that something pleasant had taken place. For a time he was social and polite. “Thank you,” he called as the two women left.  I walked them to the door and gave each another hug and another “Aloah, thank you.”  “It was my pleasure,” Marvalee whispered.  “I got to see Ken smile — just at you.”

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A few months ago while still healing from major injuries, I browsed through a stack of magazines, mostly untouched. However, as I shuffled through the pile, I noticed my church magazine, the pages already dog-eared, was opened to an article intended to be the next read. Interesting, I thought picking it up and noting the eye-catching title, “GRATITUDE,” then asking, “Was this a message for me?” Certainly, I felt gratitude. After all I was alive and recovering, and yet I was nudged at times with, “Poor me.  Angry me.  Why me?”  Perhaps I needed to ponder about gratitude a bit more deeply.

Written by a practicing psychologist who had researched the use of gratitude interventions in promoting well-being, he found that by interceding at appropriate times during counseling, thoughts of gratitude were helpful in treating depression and other problems. The doctor also advised that acknowledging thankfulness would be helpful to everyone’s mental health no matter how grave their situation. As a result of being grateful, we could all lead richer, fuller lives.

He also defined gratitude: a positive experience when we recognize gifts or blessings and feel thankful.  It sounded so overly simplistic, yet I continued reading.  Soon I began to reflect on this later portion of my life concentrating on the positive rather than the negative.

In my own defense I counceled me that I have always been prayerful.  As a child, my teachers of faith described prayer as like a sandwich:  a top and bottom piece of bread, or better known in addressing Diety as a beginning and an ending.  Inside of the prayer sandwich we were to express our thankfulness first.   “Before we ask our Heavenly Father for anything,” he explained, “we must always remember to thank Him for what He has given us.”  That could be the peanut butter portion of the sandwich.  The teacher followed giving thanks with permission to ask — the jam or jelly.   As an adult I have wondered if this pattern for prayer was a bit irreverent, but it is such a good pattern, one which I have followed all of my life, and long ago I put aside any thoughts of peanut butter and jelly when making supplication.  Perhaps now, I needed to be more outreaching in my gratitude. 

I recalled from the past that Oprah devoted the better part of a year’s programming to gratitude and journal writing. At the time, I too was caught up in the thought process of making myself more aware of blessings, but never kept a specific journal. Recently, in her magazine, Oprah admitted that through the years she had become so consumed with work there was no time left to write about the good happenings of each day. Reading from an old journal she recognized those great years from before, and commented on how happy she had been.

 The author of the “GRATITUDE” article encourages keeping a Gratitude Journal as well, with the purpose of recording several remembrances each week, but not just in list form. He suggested describing the experience, recording thoughts and emotions for the purpose of savoring and reliving what you had experienced.

In reviewing the past six years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, battling the war which is never won, I remember my friend, Madalyn, who had also battled the same war, until her husband, Darwin, died three years ago. “It wasn’t all bad,” she would tell me, and we often laughed about some of the funny things Alzheimer’s victims do and say. She reminisced about trips they had taken, visits with family which brought joy to her and momentary pleasantries to him. Her happier times with Darwin were similar to mine with Ken. These were all positive experiences: gifts and blessings recognized and thankfulness felt: gratitude.

When I came to the paragraph titled “Express Prayers of Gratitude,” I decided that would be my new beginning. As I continued my recovery in the quietness of my daughter’s home I reflected on being grateful for little things:   One at a time I could lift each foot, place it on the opposite knee and tie my own shoes, I could shower alone and I was beginning to feel confident once more. I wasn’t searching for big, dramatic epiphanies.   Deliberately, I looked for small things to appreciate because there are so many, and small blessings are often overlooked.  Every morning before I struggled out of bed I would look up at the ceiling — still wearing my neck brace and unable to kneel in formal address to Diety — close my eyes and offer a prayer of gratitude without pleading for any favors. (The favors could be requested in later prayers.) My morning prayers would be only of gratitude. I was amazed by the multitude of gifts taken for granted  for which I had to be grateful.

I have been home now for more than two months and my gratitude list grows each day. Ken’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, but because of his caregiver, Ben, I have a sense of freedom. If I write for a few hours during the day, I know Ken is all right. Ben is with him, and I can nap undisturbed because Ben is here. I am grateful for Ben and for his relief, David. I am grateful for each new day, and my growing ability to actually help Ben with Ken. I am eternally grateful for family and friends. I won’t say I’m grateful for Ken’s illness, because I am not.  I detest this dehumanizing disease and how it has robbed us of so many good years. However, I am grateful for my coping mechanism, my compassion and awareness of others who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other devastating illnesses. I am grateful that through my writing I may help someone else; letting them know they are not alone in their struggle. I am grateful for Ken and the wonderful years we have spent together. Every so often, I see a spark in his eye and a smile. For a moment he is the man I married. Feeling gratitude and offering thanks each morning for all of this and more gives me strength.  Each day I can and will go forward into our daily battle, beginning with a prayer of gratitude.

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