If you would have told me when I started my career with the federal government that I would retire at the age of 56, I would have thought you were crazy. I planned to work well into my 60s. Even when I was thinking about retirement, I thought I could get other work once I retired from my government job. But then heart failure interrupted my plans, and I thought my energy was better spent getting my heart in the best shape possible.
But there have been times recently where I wondered if I would ever recover enough stamina and focus to do at least some type of professional endeavor – probably not a conventional job, but maybe freelance work. The thought always pops into my mind: Who would engage a 60-year old when there are a lot of talented, far younger people out there. How hard would it be to offer your services to the market when you are a member of AARP?. Then it dawns on me that the best role model for defying the odds and getting a job at an older age lives about 100 miles down the road from me.
That person is my Mom. I have mentioned her many times in my posts. You are probably wondering why my Mom deserves any mention in a blog on heart failure. Well it is because this woman is the reason why I am such a persistent, focused and sometimes impatient person when it comes to managing my heart failure. I inherit all of these traits from my Mom, a petite little dynamo who never seemed to take no for an answer. If I have had any success in managing heart failure, it’s due in large part to that ability she taught me to focus and aim high.
My Mom was born on a little farm in Missouri. She was the second of six children. She never smoked in her life, but she seems to have been plagued with this nagging bronchitis-like cough for most of her life. We used to joke that if we lost our Mom in a store, we would just stop, listen for her cough, and follow the sound. But despite this ever present health issue, she was a determined woman who raised four active, precocious children. (Actually my siblings were the precocious ones. I was an angel).
My Mom was a gifted seamstress. I remember she told me stories that some she made some of her first dresses out of empty feed sacks that were washed and used for dress fabric. Her family could not afford "store-bought" fabric, but somehow, she managed to convert a feed sack into an attractive garment. She made most of my clothes (and my dolls’ clothes), and the fashionista in me just loved that. I could pick out patterns and material and she would sew an outfit that was worthy of a runway, sometimes making her own adaptations to the patterns.
My mother never went to college. But she was determined not to spend her life on a farm. So when she graduated from high school, she got a job as a bookkeeper for a business that made stone memorials for cemeteries. About 5 years later World War II ended, and she met my father who had recently returned from serving overseas in the Army. They met in the church choir. I always found this amusing because my father couldn’t carry a tune if he put it in Samsonite luggage. I suspect his membership in the church choir was a way to check out potential dates!
My parents married in 1947 and my mother stopped working. She became a housewife. My father began his career as a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and traveled a lot while my brothers and sister were growing up. This meant that my Mom was left to tend the home fires by herself when Dad was on the road. By the time I arrived on the scene, my father was traveling less but my Mom was still a full-time housewife. When we moved to Virginia in 1967, my Mom started a part-time job working at a local variety store, and she kept this job until I graduated from high school.
When I left for college, my Mom was 50 years old. She decided that she wanted to work for the Federal government in a full-time position. So she took a test to be eligible for clerk typist positions, and she got a job working with the federal government. Because she had no college education, she started at a fairly low grade level (grade 3 or 4 I think). But she really liked working in Washington, D.C., and carpooling to and from work with my Dad.
She remained in this job even as my Dad began to exhibit signs of what we now realize was an early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Complicating the matter, he had surgery on his back. Then he was injured in an accident and had to have hip surgery. All these medical issues forced his retirement from his special agent position, but my Mom remained in the workforce.
My Dad's dementia became more pronounced. Soon my Dad was unable to get out of bed due to his injuries. It was no longer possible for him to go to the bedroom on the second floor of the house. So my Mom moved him into a hospital bed on the first floor of the house. Despite arthritis in her back, she slept on a very uncomfortable sofa in the same room in case he needed anything in the night. She continued performing her government job during the day, despite the fact that I know she could not have been getting restful sleep with constant back pain. At this time, my Mom was probably about 62 years old. I do not know how she had the stamina to and determination to keep on going.
But my Mom did keep on going for close to two more years. Then it became clear that my Dad was developing some type of dementia. After examining my Dad and conducting some tests, the family doctor concluded that my Dad was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He worked with my Mom to have my Dad admitted to a nursing home facility. My Dad lived in that facility for 10 more years, passing away in 1996. My Mom would visit my Dad each night after work, making sure that she was there to feed him dinner and stay an hour or so with him. She spent more time with him on the weekends.
During this time, and after his death, my Mom started to travel. Travel was something she and my Dad had planned to do once my Dad retired. But because his physical and mental condition declined rapidly, they never had more than one or two trips before traveling became impossible. But once Dad was in the nursing home facility, we encouraged Mom to travel.
As I recall, she started out on a small scale: small trips to visit me in Pennsylvania and later New York or my sister in Richmond. I still have fond memories of my Mom stepping off the Amtrak train in Newark, New Jersey where I met her to take her on into Manhattan where I lived near the World Trade Center. She stepped off the train in her business suit and a pair of high heels. (Now you know that I my fashion instincts are genetic.) We also took several trips to Montreal to shop for clothes. I mean, Montreal has a French style influence. Where else would one find fashion forward outfits so close to the U.S.?
Later, and especially after my father passed away, my Mom went on longer trips with her sisters. They went to Arizona, to New Mexico, to Hawaii, and to many other places. I would check in every few nights with my Mom to see how the trip was going. I would hear giggling in the background and know that they were playing cards and drinking wine or pina coladas or some other libation. One thing I knew for certain is that when the 3 Ellerbeck sisters traveled, they were going to get their money’s worth and enjoy the scenery.
When my Mom turned 78, she decided to retire. I’m not sure that she was really ready to retire. But I think commuting into work every day, and the long hours were beginning to wear her out a bit. She also had suffered from a number of health issues in her later life, and her arthritis was getting very pronounced. The woman deserved a break!
By the time she retired, I think she had the title of Administrative Officer, had risen to a grade 9 and received a cherished award at her agency. For someone who started with the government as a clerk typist in her 50th year, I think that’s pretty darn good. She may not have gone to college, but the woman was smart and resourceful.
I know that prior to dementia, my Mom knew I loved her. But I hope I also expressed to her how very proud I was of her accomplishments. I worry about that. So each night in my prayers, I ask that somehow, despite the dementia, that somehow my Mom has a memory of how much I enjoyed our time together, how very proud she made me, and how very much I appreciate the tenacity from her that runs in my blood through my very ineffective heart pump.
The memories of what my Mom accomplished have made me ashamed about how often I worry that I have lost my ability to contribute in a meaningful way. My heart may be weak and damaged, but I am the product of a Mom who started a fruitful 28 year career at the age of 50. It’s in my genes for God sake!
So Mom – thanks for setting a phenomenal example for me. I promise I won’t let you down.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.