Saturday, April 15, 2017

Aunt Merry

Merry Jo in 2008
Two weeks ago today, I woke to the heartbreaking news that my beautiful and beloved Aunt Merry--my mother's only living sibling--had passed away. This wasn't especially surprising since we knew she was extremely ill, but it was gut-wrenchingly sudden--she was diagnosed with cancer just six weeks before.

Aunt Merry's 80th Birthday
As some of my friends might remember, back in December my Aunt Merry came for a visit with my cousins, and we had the amazing blessing of celebrating her 80th birthday with her. She was in a terrible amount of pain throughout their trip, from what was thought to be stress fractures and pinched nerves. After arriving home to Houston and getting in to see a specialist and having lots of tests done, they determined she had metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her liver and almost every bone in her body. Within days, she was receiving hospice care. While it was certainly hard to come to grips with losing someone so quickly, I am incredibly thankful that my sweet aunt is no longer in such horrific pain. I'm thankful that she is now in the arms of Jesus, of her husband Gerald, and of my amazing (and terribly missed) Grandma Seaman. I am also incredibly thankful we had that time with her in when she visited in December.

Merry Jo on her 80th with Mom
Since I grew up in Kansas and my Aunt Merry lived in Houston, as a child I only saw her once every couple of years--so we obviously didn't have an extremely close relationship back then. In the last ten years, however, my aunt became an incredibly important part of my life. When my mom was being treated for breast cancer in 2006, she immediately started showing signs of cognitive impairment. I began taking care of Mom's medical affairs, so Aunt Merry and I began talking more frequently about all of Mom's health concerns. In these last few years, especially since we moved Mom to Lawrence, my dear aunt was such an incredible support to me. She always expressed her love for me when we talked, but she also showed her love by her actions. She called regularly to check in on Mom, but she was just as concerned about my health and well-being. She allowed me to vent when I needed to, listened without judgment, prayed for us continually, and never told me what I should do--even when I wanted her to. She cared for Mom for over a week on two separate occasions when Chad and I needed a break. We talked about our churches, our faith, our struggles, and about what God was teaching us through those challenges. In short, she gave me the support that my own mother was no longer able to give.

Mom and Merry Jo in the mid-50s
While she was being an amazing aunt and mother-figure to me, she continued to be a wonderful older sister to my mom. While most of the people who were closest to Mom before her illness started acting as though she was already gone, Aunt Merry was one of the few exceptions. She wrote cards and letters, she sent presents, and she continued to call Mom regularly just to check in. Even when Mom could no longer have a conversation, Merry Jo would call for a quick hello. She always told Mom how good it was to hear her voice, even if the call lasted only a minute. Aunt Merry was one of just a handful of people who still took an interest in Mom's life, and my mom absolutely adored her. From the time she was a little girl and throughout adulthood, Mom idolized her older sister. Merry Jo was the person she cared about most in this world. I was a constant reminder of that reverence, since when I was born I was given the name Kimberly Jo.

Mom and her sister in 2008
Everyone who knew my aunt will tell you she was elegant and classy--always so perfectly put together. As gorgeous as she was, she was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. She was loving and loyal, caring and strong. She was a godly woman who was passionate about her love for Jesus, her church, and the prison ministry she was actively involved in. Her voice, mannerisms and appearance were so much like my mom's, but in every other way she reminded me of my precious grandmother. She was strong, stoic and reserved like Grandma Seaman, with the same faith, loyalty, and love for her family. Like Grandma, Aunt Merry rarely said an unkind word about anyone and also had little use for drama. The similarities were so strong, there were times we were on the phone that I actually had to stop myself from calling her "grandma." I think that's why her death is extra heartbreaking for me: it's like losing Grandma plus my mom all over again. Aunt Merry was the perfect combination of the two most important women in my life--the women who made me who I am.

At the Christmas Parade in December
Making this loss even more difficult is the disturbing fact that we haven't told Mom her sister is gone. I know this sounds so horrible initially--it did to me as well. In fact, when we first found out about Aunt Merry's cancer, my primary thought was when and how to tell Mom to help her comprehend and then remember. However, after talking with professionals, reading great articles on the subject (like this one), and reaching out to people in my caregiver support group who'd been through similar situations, I eventually came to understand the reality. Telling Mom devastating news that she is unable to process and unable to remember would actually be cruel and unfair. Although not telling Mom feels terribly wrong in my heart, I know in my mind it's the best thing for her. Mom can keep the few memories she has of her sister happy and untainted by grief and trauma--and what a blessing that I can help her preserve the memories of Merry Jo's most recent visits through all the pictures I have of our adventures!

Since I was unable to travel to my aunt's funeral last week, grieving and closure have been difficult, but for me, writing about her has been helpful. Thank you for letting me share all the reasons my dear aunt will be greatly missed, by me and by her four children, her thirteen grandchildren and her thirteen great-grandchildren. Thank you so much to all of you who reached out to offer condolences after her passing. Thank you for understanding why there's no need to offer those condolences to my sweet mother as well. Thank you for allowing me to honor this wonderful woman who was such a blessing in my life. I'm so honored to be her namesake.
 A damaged but treasured picture of Aunt Merry, Grandma and me in 1999

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The 2016 Luce Family Review

Happy New Year, dear family and friends! It's okay to wish everyone happy new year since it's still January, right? ;) We hope everyone had a lovely 2016 and a joyous Christmas season. I fully intended to get a real letter in the mail again this year, but clearly we’re a little (okay, a lot) behind with our holiday greetings! I barely got all of the Christmas shopping and wrapping done and only completed a portion of the decorating, so I finally decided that an online letter would have to suffice for 2016. Thanks to all of you who sent us such lovely holiday greetings--you guys are way more on top of life than I am!

Overall, our family is doing pretty well and we feel incredibly blessed. As I start composing this update on a chilly New Year's Day (yes, I started this weeks ago), Mom is sitting next to me working on an iPad puzzle and Chad is in front of the fireplace reading with Flower and Fresco nearby. I was careful to say as I START composing, because I knew full well that I wouldn't finish this post in one sitting. My brain is all over the place these days and I have such a difficult time focusing and composing a coherent thought! Hopefully this is all due to the unique stress of caring for my mom, which is pretty much what our lives revolved around in 2016.
Celebrating Mom's 70th birthday in March

While Mom is still living in her own home (with our help and the help of nighttime caregivers), we are usually together about 10 hours a day--except for on the weekends when my amazing husband gives me some much needed breaks. She is still pretty physically active and looks amazing for being 70, but as with any degenerative disease, her dementia has progressed significantly in the past year. I try to keep her busy with activities and outings, but there is less and less that she enjoys and can engage in. I treasure this time with her and am so thankful that Chad’s amazing support allows me to be her primary caregiver, but to be completely honest, the emotional exhaustion is overwhelming at times. I certainly wouldn’t have survived this far without Chad--did I mention how amazing he is? :)

Us at Hoover Dam
With all that said, we’re really managing pretty well and enjoying life as much as possible. We had a lot of great moments during 2016, including two pretty wonderful vacations. In May we took Mom to Las Vegas, where we met up with Eric and Jiffy (and their dogs). We didn't do any gambling, but we enjoyed lounging by the pool during the day and going to shows on The Strip in the evenings. After a few days in Vegas, we road-tripped a few hours to the Grand Canyon, where we spent a couple of nights in a beautiful cabin and a whole day hiking the rim.
Us with our friend Linda in Mt. Rainier National Park

In October, Chad and I took Mom to Seattle, where we were able to visit two of Mom's best friends from our years in Salina. We did a little hiking at nearby Mt. Rainier, took a ferry to a quaint island in Puget Sound, spent a day seeing some of the famous sites in downtown, and even briefly visited some friends from Lawrence who'd moved there. We also took mom down to Houston for a visit with her sister in early March, which was a lovely vacation for us since for 10 days we only had to take care of her cats! 
Horseback riding with Mom

Mom and I also took lots of little day trips, exploring all the little towns within an hour or so of Lawrence. We spent as much time as possible outside, walking every nature trail we could find in city and county parks, around Clinton and Perry Lakes and at the Baker Wetlands. When it was too hot to walk, we spent many hours swimming at the pools in Mom's neighborhood. In addition to our walking and swimming, Mom and I attended musicals at Theatre Lawrence, went to a few museums, went to the library every couple of weeks, started a weekly yoga class, and even went horseback riding at a nearby ranch (which we hope to be able to do again soon)! We went to every parade and every festival featuring art, music, food, animals, nature or buskers in our area--we even dragged Chad along to some of them! Most of the time though, Chad's entertainment consisted of his new favorite stress-buster: disc golf! When not playing disc or traditional golf, his weekends were filled with KU football games, which mom and I usually enjoyed right along with him!

Speaking of Chad's stress level, it was a little higher than normal this year--he was promoted in April after his boss Terry's retirement (yay!), and found out in May his company was being acquired (boo!). The year consisted of him trying to do his new job but also serving on the team trying to figure out how to integrate the two companies. The sale should be complete this spring (assuming it goes through), and we are super thankful that Chad will most likely still have a job (though not his current job) when the dust settles.
Thanksgiving with Joanie,
Mark, Jen and family

Thanksgiving with Chad's family--
Mark and Ginny and Grandma Luce
In less stressful news, we enjoyed several visits from family members this year--my brother and Jiffy in April, September and November, my dad in July, my Aunt Merry in December, and Chad's mom Joanie a few times in the fall. Mom's cousin Janet also came to stay at Mom's over the summer, which enabled us to keep our string of annual Old 97's shows alive with one in KC (that one was our 20th, if you're keeping score at home). We got to visit with Chad's Grandma (as well as aunts, uncles and cousins) at the Luce family reunion in June, and on Thanksgiving we saw all of them again in Salina along with Chad's parents Mark and Ginny. The day after Christmas we spent a lovely afternoon in central Kansas celebrating the holiday with Mark, Ginny, Chad's brother Mark and wife Jen, his brother Matt and wife Julie, all of our nieces and nephews--and of course Mom! It was great having everyone together for the first time ever!

Chad and I scaled back on our volunteering in 2016--partially because of our duties with Mom and partially because the church we had called home for the last 5+ years closed its doors in April. It was very bittersweet--we were ready for a break from leadership and yet super sad about losing the close-knit community we had at EastLake. The good news is that a) our church family still continues to be our Church family even though we no longer meet with them regularly, and b) after many months of visiting at least 15 different churches in town, we found a new church home all three of us enjoy! We certainly miss the irreplaceable worship band from EastLake, but we're excited to see what God is going to do at our new church--a very small and fairly young church called Relevate!

So that's the year 2016 in a very large nutshell. The year certainly wasn't always pretty, but we are super thankful we survived and made it to 2017. Hopefully the update hasn't put you all to sleep and the pictures and links helped to keep you entertained! For more entertainment in the upcoming year, feel free to follow our adventures via Instagram--my username is kluce99.

We hope that everyone is having a fantastic start to 2017 and we pray the year is full of blessings and joy for all of you!