In art, there is a painting technique called colour loading. One loads one side of the brush with one colour and the other side of the brush with a second colour. Two colours. Skilled artists can load the brush with three colours. What makes this colour loading so fascinating to me is that the painter can now make strokes, side by side, of two (or three) distinct colours. Neither colour impedes on the other. Each colour runs beside the other; clear and well-defined.
When we walked along the river two weeks ago, we noticed hundreds of ducks and geese in the bay. The ice that had formed the previous week had begun to melt and there were fissures throughout the ice floes, or ice islands, as my husband calls them.
The ice fishing huts that had sprung up had disappeared and the ruts and tracks in the snow on the ice made by anxious fishermen were filled with water. Only the ducks and geese dared to brazenly walk across the floes.
That day the sky was two tones of Easter egg blue and multiple shades of dove grey, while white clouds drifted by – cumulus, cirrus and stratus. There was a fourth type of cloud in the sky but I hadn’t watched enough of The Weather Network to name it; I am no climatologist. Take my word for it: the sky was filled with fluffy, streaky, and wispy clouds.
The muted sun hid behind the cumulus, cirrus, stratus and mystery clouds, but the streak of vivid blue sky that peeked through was a sure sign that she would make a showier appearance before the morning was done.
During our walk I halted often to watch the geese fly overhead; their honks could not be ignored, much to my husband’s annoyance when I chose to stop often.
Later, I made chili, and I changed up my recipe: I added one big dollop of honey – honey that my husband had bought at the farmer’s market. Also, I roasted the vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, pepper, celery, hot jalapenos) instead of sautéing them.
When we sat down to watch Sunday afternoon football, we began to text our sons who live in Toronto. Our texts were colour-commentator worthy as we are all football fans. (Although my one son and his wife have watched a documentary about concussions in football and sports, and have been most decidedly turned off of the sport.)
My sister dropped in on her way home from visiting her friend who now lives in a long-term care home in London, laden with gifts. I am not exaggerating; she entered and yelled, “I have come laden with gifts.”
She stayed for chili and crusty bread and we opened a Chinese beer for each of us – the same Chinese beer that we enjoyed on our recent visit to China.
In turn, she presented me with two sketch books and a package of charcoal pencils. Her friend who she visited earlier that day insisted she buy them for me. Turns out her friend has a Fine Arts degree and knows about these things. I was so moved to receive my sister’s gifts. She had not forgotten my husband and presented him with a bag of candy. My husband (who was not moved) tore the bag open and called the candy.. dessert.
I was moved because more and more I am aware of the gifts of each day – ducks and geese on melting ice bergs; blue and grey streaky skies that change as we walk (Nature has perfected the colour-loading process); home-made honey by one of our local farmers; chili; sweet candy; and art supplies.
When people ask me about my experience of looking after both parents, and then visiting them in a care home, I am often asked how I coped. And my answer is always the same – I try to live mindfully, each day in awareness. When we live in the Now, and are mindful of each and everything around us at all times, we live more fully. More alive. Healthier. More joy.
When I visit the long-term care facility where I now volunteer, mindfulness is my intention. When I go through the doors, I stop at the window display, inset in the wall by the hairdressing salon, just so that I can appreciate the creative talents of the staff and the residents. The art is beautiful and it is beyond comprehension how residents who have a dementia-related disease are so talented, artistically.
At my weekly meditation class, we talk about how a person in their eighties, and even nineties, with no prior experience in art, suddenly draws or paints with perfect symmetry, balance and proportion. How does that happen, we wonder? We suspect that the fears and misconceptions about our own unique talents disappear with a dementia – as if the veil of doubt that we carry around all of our lives (Oh, I wish I could draw, but I can’t; I have no artistic talent, none!) is lifted.
As I continue down the hall towards the area where I visit (there are four pods in the care facility – I visit one of them), I stop and greet personal support workers, kitchen staff, nurses and cleaning staff with recognition and delight – many of these people are the same ones who held me in their open arms when I grieved beside my dying mother’s bed. We are forever connected; we have a bond that love and compassion (and grace) has created and it is a bond my mindfulness honours.
Later, I may spend time helping residents go to the bingo room or to music therapy; or I might read to residents during our weekly reading session.
Last week I laughed along with the residents when Charlie, a Golden Retriever, and his owner stopped by for a visit just as we finished reading John Grogan’s Marley and Me. Charlie is a four-legged volunteer, and a favourite with the residents. One of the residents told me that Charlie must have known that we were reading about Marley. It did seem serendipitous, and the same resident pointed out the similarity in their names, Charlie and Marley.
Charlie’s owner intuitively recognized that she had arrived at the perfect moment and so she sat down and initiated a Q&A session about Charlie. Some of the residents asked her if Charlie is frightened of thunderstorms, like Marley. When she answered no, she had her dog perform some tricks, all of which delighted the residents. Charlie then visited each resident, taking time to lay her head on either of their knees or in their laps, sniffing them completely, and allowing the love to flow. Charlie is mellow – she has this mindfulness thing mastered.
When we are in complete awareness of the moment that we are in, we are mindful. Dogs get that. Dogs are not worried about any issues or fears – their full attention is on the person who is sitting in front of them (or who is giving them a treat).
So if a family member is visiting someone who has a dementia-related disease, I suggest mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to appreciate the person fully, and not the disease.
Appreciate the staff who care for them; take time to learn their names and ask about them. Learn about the home’s activities and take part in some of them. Visit the gardens or go for a walk. Learn to savour these sweet moments – life is short, embrace each day.
Let go of the fears that surround disease and illness; instead, recognize that the time you have left is about living, not dying. Time is a gift.
When I looked after my father, I tended to his daily needs: toileting, dressing, feeding and transferring him from bed to chair or chair to bed. So one of the most important lessons that I learned was about our bodies and our health, and from that I learned never to underestimate the ability to take care of ourselves. From the moment I open my eyes, I am thankful to be here, to be healthy, and to be able to go to the bathroom – alone, without support. I can feed myself and choose what to eat; I can dress myself; I can walk down the stairs without support; and I can walk. These are all gifts – begin to recognize them as gifts.
“the miracle is to be alive” Thich Nhat Hanh
Like a paintbrush that is loaded with two or three colours, our emotions sit side by side: love, fear, and sorrow.Three distinct emotions. When we recognize that our emotions exist side by side, and that it is human to feel all three simultaneously, we begin to have more compassion for ourselves and our emotions.
Awareness will lead us to appreciate the distinct colours of our lives: side by side, each clear and well-defined. Each colour more beautiful because of the colour that lies beside it. Sweetness beside sorrow; joy beside grief.