Creating a Legacy through Letters

By on July 20, 2016
legacy

Before the Internet, email, Facebook, and Instagram, my mother wrote letters. Over the course of six-and-a-half years, as she cared for my dad following his debilitating stroke, she found that writing helped her cope with her isolation, loneliness, and the stress of caring for a husband who was very different from the man she had known and loved for more than fifty years.

She was very surprised, and I think quite pleased, when I told her that I saved all of her letters. I did not tell her that every time I received one, I called Mary and Donna, my two best girlfriends and said, “I got a letter from Madelyn!” They would hurry over to my house, and depending on our moods, we would pour a glass of wine or dish up a bowl of ice cream, and I would read Mom’s letter out loud.

“ . . . And for this I take Vitamins!”

As with many of her missives, we laughed through our tears when I read this one:

February 8, 1995 

Dear Elaine,

. . . I am very disturbed with the advice that is being given to people today about doing your own thing and to hell with everyone else.” I think that attitude is responsible for a lot of the divorces and unhappiness in the world today.

I think Dr. Wayne Dyer had a lot to do with this when he wrote the book, “Your Erroneous Zones.” I bought that book, and it made me so angry I couldn’t finish reading it. For one thing, I had the feeling Dyer didn’t realize there were two genders. In my opinion he is only aware of the male. For another, he kept pounding away at the idea that you should do what you want to do.

As an old lady, I’m here to tell anyone who will listen that life is not made of up of doing what you want to do! When a person commits to marriage and parenthood, your time of living for yourself is gone—FOREVER!

When I look back over my life, it is hard to see what I have done just for myself. I have, of course, learned to find my own space and time in my mind. I have said for many years that living strictly on the physical plane has very little joy for me.

I can’t see anything so wonderfully exciting or invigorating about getting up in the morning, fixing breakfast, doing the dishes, making the bed, picking up the papers, doing laundry, helping your father, fixing lunch, doing the dishes, doing more laundry, and more housework. An exciting day for me might consist of having a good telephone conversation or possibly meeting an interesting person in the grocery store or on the street. And for this I should take vitamins? I should try to eat right and exercise so I can prolong this wonderful life experience? HA! No thanks!

My greatest joy in life comes from learning and growing mentally and spiritually. The great thing about having my own space and happiness from within,” is that I can stay more or less detached emotionally, and still do what has to be done to give other people a reasonable amount of happiness.

Developing an Attitude of Creative Indifference

I believe my mother’s detached attitude was the key her emotional survival. Eventually, it evolved into what she called an “attitude of creative indifference.” When I asked her one time what the difference was between being detached and being creatively indifferent, she said, “It’s the same thing. You can call it whatever you want to call it. I just like “creative indifference” better, because “detached” sounds a little cold. What it means is not allowing yourself to become emotionally ravaged by the disease or the progression of events.”

To learn more about the three steps to developing an attitude of creative indifference, please visit my website: Caregiver Support for Creative Indifference.

Leaving a Legacy

About five years into her caregiving experience, she wrote, “I wish I had been keeping a journal all of these years. I think it would be interesting to see how I have grown and changed mentally and spiritually. I also think my experiences might be helpful to other people who are in a similar situation.”

Two years after her death, I was asked to speak at our church on Mother’s Day about mother-daughter relationships. I went out to the garage and took down a cardboard moving box my husband had labeled, “Letters from Madelyn.” As I searched for the “vitamin letter,” I read several others, and I realized I had a treasure trove of wit and wisdom.

After I shared that excerpt and told a few stories, several people came up to me and exclaimed, “You have to write a book!” I started on it the next day.

Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver is one woman’s intensely intimate and personal journey through caregiving. It is also every caregiver’s story. Madelyn was not a saint. She got frustrated and angry. She lived in constant fear of running out of money. She was often repulsed by my dad’s actions and appearance, and it was a struggle for her to remember and stay connected to the man he had been before the stroke. She often said, “My husband died on October 30, 1993. We just haven’t gotten around to burying him yet.”

If my mother had sent emails, I suspect I would have read them and hit the “Delete” button. And then as the years passed, I know I would have remembered that I loved her, but I may have forgotten exactly why.

Editing her letters into the book refreshed her memory in my heart. It also inspired me to help other caregivers. Perhaps even more importantly, after my three children read the book, they each said, “I never knew Grandma!”

They now know that on the surface she may have look like a sweet, little old white-haired lady, but there was nothing fragile, frail, or meek in her mental or emotional makeup. They also now know that they will be able to tap into their own strength, courage, and humor to deal with whatever challenges they face in their own lives, because Grandma Madelyn’s DNA runs through their veins.

I just wish Mom knew that by having the courage to express her feelings and expose her soul in letters, she created a lasting legacy for her family. She also fulfilled her desire to help countless other caregivers find the comfort, companionship, and encouragement they need to get through a rough day or a sleepless night.

 

Elaine K. Sanchez

Elaine K. Sanchez

Elaine K Sanchez frequently speaks at caregiving, eldercare, and healthcare conferences across the US. Attendees often laugh through their tears as she shares her mother’s stories and her own caregiving experiences. She is the author of Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver, and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, an online support program for caregivers.

 

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Creating a Legacy through Letters