This Morning

This morning I didn’t expect butterflies in my stomach as I drew a family tree on the chalk board at the School of Social Work at our local university. Next I printed my name and SWIMMING SOLO on the board. The autumn sun warmed the room. I took off my jacket, tucked my bangs back, opened my folder with my lesson plan. I was excited and nervous even though I’ve been in front of many classes teaching French.

When I saw the first student—in a bright red sweater—, I relaxed.

More students filed in, greeted me, set up pens and notebooks, and waited. From my teaching days, I remember this moment of silent anticipation as the scariest. I studied the faces—women, but for one man—fresh and ready to become social workers themselves. The professor introduced me. In the golden light, our arms seemed almost connected around the polished wood of the seminar table.

“Today I’m going to tell you a bit about who I am and how I came to write and publish Swimming Solo. Then I’ll read two sections featuring social workers. I’ll be most interested in your reactions.”

I’d picked two passages: the first an intake interview with me, my parents, and a new social worker. Our family hoped a professional could help my folks organize their life as my dad’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed.

When I finished reading, I asked:

“How did the social worker build our family’s trust in this short meeting?”

One woman began, “She met your dad where he was by offering to organize his desk with him. She didn’t dictate at all.”

“Wow. I never knew people paid attention to what a social worker wears,” said another young woman.

Another chimed in, “At my nursing home internship, staff was expected to wear closed-toe shoes.”

Someone asked, “You were still teaching and trying to caregive, weren’t you? So how did you multitask?”

I listened and absorbed, then said, “Here’s another family story. Again with a social worker. But different because we needed an immediate decision about my father-in-law who also had Alzheimer’s.”

I half-acted, half-read the voices in a volatile family meeting that erupted after the social worker left.

“Oh, this resonates,” the woman in the red sweater said. “I remember a meeting where a family member blocked us from doing what was right for my sick mom. I do remember.”

Now the class was warmed up, full of exchanges with each other and memories of their own experiences. They quizzed me about where I drew strength during the 14 years of Alzheimer’s caregiving. As I watched their eyes come to life, as the students glimpsed themselves as social workers, I remembered why my husband and I decided that yes, these four stories of our old parents’ Alzheimer’s disease might bring comfort, even guidance to others, be they professional caregivers or family members.

“Time for our break,” said the professor.

I thanked the class for their input and wished everyone good luck.

A young woman with Botticelli golden hair grabbed my hand and began to cry, “Thank you. This will help me with my family.”

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