Failure to thrive

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death. As on my mother-in-law’s certificate.

But I wonder: How can living to ninety-one be considered ‘failure to thrive’?

A coal-miner’s daughter who survived the Great Depression, widowed twice with young children each time, who maintained a beautiful home and a bountiful table frequently laden and ready for the arrival of her family. A voracious reader with a passion and ear for music, a grandmother generous with her love, time, and grace, a woman of great faith in God … her decline was slow and in the last days, she called out to deceased siblings and sang the hymns of her childhood.

—It doesn’t seem like failure to thrive to me. If anybody ever thrived, she did.

Oh, I understand it’s medical terminology for geriatric deterioration, encompassing decreased appetite leading to poor nutrition, muscle weakness, dementia; the human body can only take us so far.

But failure to thrive doesn’t happen only to the elderly. Most often it’s applied to babies who don’t gain weight, who don’t grow as they should, due to a host of contributing factors.

Both ends of the spectrum, then, isn’t it, failure to thrive. Its potential can frame the beginning of one’s life, and, even if that life should be long, the end.

Which for me begs the question of all that’s in between.

In how many ways do we fail to thrive? In the course of being alive, what are the “nutrients” each individual needs to live well? Thriving in this sense goes beyond the physical to the psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual… can there be holistic balance if one part is suffering, starving? Because I’m an educator, this line of thinking brings me to “the whole child”: What is impeding growth? What “learning diet” does this individual child need? In the academic realm, nourishment for flourishment can vary widely… but at the core of being human, one non-negotiable need is each other.

Relationships fail to thrive, do they not. Suffering ensues. A point of pain ripples outward, troubling the waters, sometimes over a great expanse… being alive, successfully, involves an array of coping mechanisms, the ability to adapt. The Venus flytrap comes to mind. Stuck in nutrient-poor soil, it compensates by eating meat, the unwary flies which land in its toothy leaf-blades. The businesslike science of staying alive. Gulp.

In terms of the human, the matter of thriving—growing, growing up, growing old—involves willing interdependence. Based on… love? Conscience? Overcoming fear? When my oldest son was in his early teens, he sighed: “I do not want to grow up.” (Of course he did; he’s now a husband, a father, and his daughter is the joy of his days).

But I understood his words and shivered.

Point being that of the baby, the child, the adult, the aged and infirm, which stands most able to impact the thriving of the human ecosystem… for better, for worse… with the power to discern, decide, desire, and do for one and all?

Yeah.

That’s us.

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death…

Photo: Wilted. Fotologic. CC BY

******

With thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to this writing community for unfailing encouragement.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.