Monday, December 26, 2011
. . . We mustn’t forget old people with their rotten bodies, old people who are so close to death, something that young people don’t want to think about . . . . We mustn’t forget that our bodies decline, friends die, everyone forgets about us, and the end is solitude. Nor must we forget that these old people were young once, that a lifespan is pathetically short, that one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty. . . . life goes by in no time at all. . . . if you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know how to build the present, and when you don’t know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?
So, we mustn’t forget any of this, absolutely not. We have to live with the certainty that we’ll get old and that it won’t look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it’s now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. . . . we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity.
That’s what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people. (The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson 128-129).
Why do I write a blog, “Remembering for Mother?” I write because we mustn’t forget.
Why do I write a blog about Alzheimer’s? Because we mustn’t forget. If we do, then aged Alzheimer’s patients will wither seated in wheel chairs pointed generally in the direction of a window or television screen. If we do, then Alzheimer’s patients will fall lower on the list of medical research priorities.
Why do I write a blog about caring for aging parents? Because I mustn’t forget
just how hard it is to have one foot in two worlds. While my daughter graduated from high school, my father’s heart attack and subsequent bladder surgeries tore me asunder. I divided my time between her celebrations and his decline. While my daughter finished college, applied for graduate school, and moved thousands of miles from our home state, my father fought cancer and Mother cared for him at home. I divided my time again between two generations, sometimes resenting the neediness of the older one because it took so much of my energy from the younger one. When my daughter earned a graduate degree and planned her wedding, my father within months of death, I bore the yoke of his and Mother’s needs, driving back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the state twice monthly, then shedding age and sickness like a second skin, reborn again for beginnings and joy as my daughter began her career and marriage in a new place.
Why do I blog about remembering Mother? Because we mustn’t forget that she asked for nothing when my daughter fought breast cancer. Even as Mother’s needs for help increased exponentially, she told me to stay at home, to rest so that I could drive back and forth, this time ten hours or more, to be with my daughter during chemotherapy. I cooked for her. I cleaned for her. I washed loads of laundry, and I stocked her pantry and freezer, hoping to stumble upon some chore completed that would make a difference in the aches, pains, and sickness that is cancer. I was often exhausted, and Mother was at a loss for someone to balance her checkbook, write checks for her. She overdrew twice and made a couple of serious mistakes simply because she couldn’t remember and sort out the dates from amounts. But she put on a brave face and tried to make me believe she could manage without me, asking strangers at her bank to help her. She’s always done that: put on brave faces and persevered.
And that’s the last reason I write this blog. Because we mustn’t forget that all those aging know the advice that Barbery’s character offers: They spent each day engaged in building . . . something, . . . at any price, using all . . . [their] strength. . . . [they] surpass[ed] . . . [themselves] every day, . . . [made] every day undying.
Those afflicted are there for graduations from high school and college, there for weddings. They grieve their losses and sorrows, and they celebrate milestones and rites of passage, even as they lose ground daily. If they resent any of it, the best of them do not make it known. They soldier on, walking bravely into the unknowns that others fear.
Monday, December 19, 2011
The holidays bend my mind to gifts given and received. One in particular, a gift to Mom and Dad from me with my little sister's name on it, too. My parents had never been without a pet. My sister had a series of rabbits, delicate creatures. She also had a terrarium full of lizards that held them in but did not hold my my cat out. He learned to open the lid, seize an unsuspecting reptile, then present it as his gift to me or my sister, lizard body inside his mouth, held between sharp teeth, a lifeless tail hanging from between his lips like a tired puntuation mark.
We had birds that sang and shat in their cages, fish that lived and died too quickly, ants that labored between panes of glass, cats that came and went, and dog after dog after dog. Dad had a soft heart and brought home every stray he ever found. He’d bring them back to health, then find a home for them, but old Cinderella remained through the years.
She was Heinz 57 with the markings of a rat terrier but much larger. Gentle with us, a real pal, she rode with us for picnics beside the Illinois River and often took car rides to wherever we might be going. She loved to hang her head out the rear window, letting air blow her eyes wide and her tongue back along the side of her head. So enchanted was she with the road that she took a great leap out that window. Dad almost drove on. He just didn’t want to see what had become of her, but he did turn back, of course. She lay lifeless in the ditch, and he was prepared to grieve when he touched her. Instead, she came to life with his touch, stood, shook her head briskly and trotted back to the car, never again to leap from a car window.
One Christmas loomed, and Mother and Dad were without any pet. I didn’t know then, as I do now, that after years of feeding, patting, treating, and protecting pets, adults can be quite content without a furry beast under foot so I persuaded my sister that we would present Mother and Dad with a puppy for Christmas. I read the Classifieds, found a Cocker Spaniel-Poodle mix for a good price, and bought him.
He was not even weaned, I learned too late. He needed bottles and formula, warm lights, and nursing. Nevertheless, he grew strong and stubborn. I guess, as the last of his litter, let go too soon, he was a bit mad at the world. He did not develop a sense of humor about anything, remaining stern and defensive all his days.
He hated Mother with a steely-eyed vigor. She had done him the greatest wrong, in his opinion. She had been standing nearby, reaching into a high cabinet for his bag of food as he leaped beside her, up, down, up down, heedless of what might harm him. We had tried to coax him and teach him not to leap because he had little control over his landings, but his back legs seemed to made of elastic, and the effect was boing left, boing right, boing, boing, boing until whatever he wanted was handed down to him. That tragic day, Mother’s arms still aloft, her body somewhat removed from his, he boinged right down, left leg caught and broken in the narrow space between the washer and dryer.
Convinced that Mother had broken his leg, he despised her from that day forward. She had to wear gloves, heavy-duty work gloves, when she handled him because he tried all his remaining days to break some appendage of hers. Still she cared for him.
After another long bout without a pet, Mother and Dad relented, this time rescuing Suzie dog, a little silver Schnauzer, from life in a cage at a no-kill shelter, and for the first time ever, Dad left a pet entirely to Mother’s care. Every other animal gravitated to him and adored him while allowing Mother to put out food and water, a servant to their needs, but not the master.
I think Dad knew that Mother would need something to cuddle and love once he was gone so he determined to make that dog Mother’s dog. Suzie grew devoted to Mother, and Mother devoted to her. Sadly, Suzie’s age won out before Mother’s so Mother had to face the loss of her, but I never should have doubted Mother’s resolve. She held Suzie as we waited for the veterinarian to administer drugs that would relieve Suzie of the pain she endured after her cancerous growths pressed upon her, causing her to moan and wince, to walk stiffly, and to shun food.
Suzie seemed a puppy in Mother’s arms, so alive under Mother’s touch. She went to her end without fear, my husband holding and speaking to her throughout the ordeal. Then Mother returned to speak softly the last words. Suzie’s ashes now lie at a memorial, Companions Forever. A little plaque tells the world that she lived, that she was loved and by whom. Mother touches the plaque as if she were touching Suzie’s little head. She says, “Poor Suzie” and looks at me.
I can only say “Poor Mother.” How many pets parade in her memory. How many has she loved and let go. How much loneliness abides as the years pass.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Mother could sew an invisible hem that would never tear loose. She could design a Christmas package so that it looked just like a shirt front and tie, and she could simmer a pot roast until it fell apart, so tender, juicy, and flavorful.
But Mother was among the worst drivers anywhere. Once, in our fiery red Mercury, she followed a dump truck too closely and failed to notice the stop sign ahead on a route she’d driven many times. The truck driver stopped; she didn’t. The front end of the Mercury scooted up under the truck bed, its paint and smooth surface scraping and bending until momentum finally released it and us. I didn’t think Dad would ever unclench his jaw after that one. He was steely for days.
Many years later, I was the passenger while Mother drove on roads were wet with snow. Tensed, Dad sat in the back seat, now and then saying, "Slow down," especially as temperatures fell and the roads turned icy and slick. Mother drove faster. The closer she came to her home in the hills of Arkansas, the faster she drove. She wanted to be done with the trip, with driving, with worry about her dog waiting, with slick roads. Her haste made waste that time. In a curve, she lost control, the back tires skidding right while the front end headed left. She overcorrected, and we headed down the mountain. Only thick, wet slopes stopped our downward slide as the car dug deep into the mud and held. Dad said nothing.
He did tell all about Mother’s bump-up with a County Road Grader. Headed home, she failed to notice that the grader was in reverse, heading directly for her. In her defense, she came upon it suddenly, round a curve, and who wouldn’t expect a vehicle to be going forward, not backward. Dad scoffed and sent his prized buttery yellow Caddy off for a new front end and hood.
My favorite Mom-wreck occurred three times. She pulled into her own driveway and failed to put the car in park, not once or twice but three times! It rolled back out of the drive, across the street, and down the yard opposite until the neighbor’s brick front porch stopped its progress. Three times! Three times that car was driven up and out of the preacher’s yard. Three times! She was furious with herself, but blamed the car, swearing that it was defective.
I don’t know how many years Mom and Dad paid more than most for car insurance. I do know that when he passed away and I began to help her with financial obligations, she was insured by the company of last resort. She had three car accidents in a short period, then a fourth, and no one wanted to insure her.
These facts played in my mind as I watched her age and slide into Alzheimer’s. She clung to that car as if it were her lifeline, and I suppose, in a way, it was. But it had to go. I knew it. Neighbors knew it. Strangers knew it. She refused to know it. It went anyway, the first car my husband tried sold on eBay. He got a good price, one that helps pay the companions mileage as they take Mother places she needs and wants to go.
The world is safer now. She always drove too fast, followed too closely, and let her mind drift to the many, many things she wanted to accomplish all at once. The road was always just a bit of a nuisance as it carried her from one dream to another, and she wanted to be at journey’s end as quickly as possible. Now the roads she traveled loom large in my memory.
Monday, December 5, 2011
And he likes your work! Your methods for extracting a pound of flesh are infamous, but before I proceed, bear with me through the antecedent action, a disclaimer of sorts.
Long ago, dear Readers, A T & T was the only telephone company in the land. It had used its resources and government endorsements to build the finest communications network in the world. Telephone poles and wires strung across the country brought private lines to almost every nook and cranny, every meadow and plateau, reliably, predictably, and inexpensively. But entrepreneurs, innovators, and the spirit of competition came to life, protesting the telephone monopoly known as A T & T and its regional offspring. Government regulatory prowess prevailed, and A T & T lost its claim upon the nation’s customers. The whole pie was cut into slices, with A T & T having only one piece.
At the time, I sided with A T & T, believing the government should have let A T & T go forth alone. I vowed to remain loyal to A T & T as a nod to its history.
Nevertheless, as I paid my bills, I noticed more fees, new charges, and increases. Customer service faded in favor of hair-splitting: was the loss of service due to A T & T equipment? No. Pay dearly. Was your service interrupted by something outside the walls of your home? Well, then, A T & T will assume responsibility--most of the time, but all of the time if you spend a bit more each month to insure against an outside failure.
When I tired of jumping through A T & T’s hoops, I jumped ship, selected a different landline carrier, and have never looked back. Service has been reliable, predictable, and affordable. I’m happy.
Then cell phones roared to life, changing everything. A T & T offered a killer deal to employees at my husband’s place of business so our first cell phone was with A T & T, but the minimalist approach to billing, frequent rate increases, and fees that seemed to breed like bunnies persuaded us to leave A T & T once more. And, once again, I have not missed them at all. Never did I grow nostalgic for the good old A T & T days because they weren’t good, just old.
Mother, on the other hand, used A T & T for her first cell phone, her second, and her third. She had a minimal-minutes plan, no texting, no browsing--just a set number of minutes with no long-distance charges. That’s what she liked. She turned her phone on each Sunday evening and called her children and friends. Otherwise, the phone lay dormant.
Over time, however, Mother forgot how to turn on her phone. Next, she forgot that it needed charging. Soon after, she put away the cell phone charger where no one, including Mother, could find it. She wanted another, one that would work. So I took her shopping in spite of my doubts. We chose a snazzy red Nokia flip-phone because the key pad had numbers that she could see. We held tutorials all evening. I wrote out detailed directions and explained the charger.
Mother never used the phone. She could not remember how to turn it on by pressing the red button instead of the green. Most of the time, she could not figure out how to open the phone to find the red button.
Her companions tried to teach her. She gave the phone to my sister who promised to program it so that Mother could use it, but being unable to turn the phone on nullified any programming; thus, after six months, I decided to cancel the cell phone as one more unnecessary expense. My sister agreed.
This brought me back to A T & T--not as a second-hand bill payer in Mother’s behalf, but voice to voice, person to person. I hoped that A T & T had changed. I learned it has not.
The first person who answered the 800 number was not authorized to cancel the service without penalty--a charge I agreed to pay but hoped would be waived because of Mother’s disability. The young lady was not authorized to waive charges. She was only authorized to sell me on another A T & T program. She encouraged me to add Mother’s number to my own account or to buy a phone to add to Mother’s account for the low, low price of $9.99 monthly (plus fees, taxes, and the cost of a phone, of course). When that failed, she wondered if I might like to transfer Mother’s service to my personal Internet use. I declined, first and foremost because Mother’s business is Mother’s business, separate from my own, and second, because I try to avoid doing business with A T & T.
[Okay, a moment of truth: I have been tempted to join the iPhone 1, 2, 4 and 4s camps and sign a long-term deal with A T & T. I really, really want an iPhone and resent bitterly the initial A T & T-only contract for iPhones. I am now poised to jump for the iPhone, pending the outcome of the latest A T & T effort to increase its share of the market exponentially by merging with T-Mobile. I hope not to be subsumed by A T & T if the Department of Justice fails to halt the merger, but I have also begun to think of A T & T as my inevitable fate and have therefore mellowed somewhat. In other, briefer words, my husband and I have actually discussed returning to A T & T with iPhones in our pockets.]
The next person, one step above a mere A T & T Customer Relations representative, was a supervisor. I spoke to her regarding Mother’s condition and cancellation of her contract. She had been well trained to be sympathetic and to try to salvage the business. She offered a six-month suspension, for which Mother could pay $9.99 monthly(plus taxes and fees--taxes and fees are always a given), then she would only owe $102 to terminate service. The supervisor hurried on, having quickly dropped in the $102 charge, until I stopped her and asked to review.
“Let me be sure that I understand you, please.”
“Of course,” she said sweetly. To her credit, she was never unkind, snide, or abrupt.
“You have no provision for Alzheimer’s, dementia, or disability.” I simply dared not ask about death; I truly did not want to know the answer. “You will charge an early-termination fee of $126. But I could suspend service for 6 months, paying $9.99 plus taxes and fees each month for a total of sixty plus dollars, then owe only $102 more. Is that correct?”
“Why would I want to do that? Why would anyone want to do that? I could cancel now at a cost of $126, or I could delay termination for six months at a cost of $162 plus taxes and fees.”
“Well, some people don’t like to write a big check all at once.”
“Really? That’s your explanation. People go for that deal to save writing a check for a total of twenty-four additional dollars? That’s what you’ve been taught to say?”
I believe that some people cannot add quickly and would not immediately recognize the trap: that they would pay more for the privilege of prolonging the inevitable separation. I believe this would be particularly true for elderly customers (Yes, I’m in my early 60s and Mother is in her early 80s). Above all, I believe this offer is no offer at all, but the company’s version of Razzle-Dazzle Bait-and-Shift. I believe it was a heinous offer so I asked to speak to the Customer Relations Supervisor’s manager.
I began by assuring the manager, after a ten-minute wait on hold, that the Customer Relations Supervisor had been well trained and courteous, that my complaint was not with her, but with A T & T in general. He listened and parroted the supervisor, then said that A T & T simply must recover its money.
And that, dear Readers, was the final insult. I lost my temper then and actually scoffed. The company posts profits in the billions. It delivers on Wall Street. Mother paid for the phone before it was ever activated. She has dutifully paid for service--never used in the last six months--and never missed a due date. The company has lost nothing except six more months at $35.29 monthly. But A T & T wants its pound of flesh according to the contract.
Shylock would be so proud as A T & T takes its revenge upon the elderly and infirm. Way to build customer loyalty, A T & T. You just lost me--again!
Post Script: Two days after writing the essay above, I received an electronic notice for Mother’s December A T & T bill. The previous three A T & T employees with whom I had spoken, from Customer Representative to Supervisor and finally, Manager, had all denied having the authority to waive the early termination fee. The supervisor, however, stated that since monthly charges are paid in advance, Mother would not owe another monthly amount. Both supervisor and manager assured me that Mother’s account was now closed.
Still an electronic notice appeared in my inbox and announced the deduction of another $35.29, necessitating yet another call to A T & T. This time, David _______ (last name omitted by the author, me) answered. After hearing my tale, David agreed to accept another month’s charge and waive the early termination charge. He left me on hold while he took care of the matter, but upon returning to the line with the words, “Now I’ve just . . . ,” the line went dead.
I waited in the vain hope that David would call me back. He did not. So again I submitted to the 1-800 number and this time, Patty _______ (last name withheld) answered. After listening to me, she opened with an apology because no record of any conversation with David was available on her computer screen and Mother’s number had never been cancelled. (Dear Readers, be proud of me. I did not resort to cursing or screaming--although I very much wanted to do both.)
Patty promised to get her supervisor, Rusty _______ (last name withheld), involved while I held. She had the foresight to take the number from which I called so that she could call me back if necessary. (I had little faith, at this point, that such a call would ever be made, but I agreed to wait, declaring that I wanted resolution before I ended the call.)
Patty’s first offer, supposedly by way of Rusty, was to hold longer because Rusty was trying to determine, with the help of someone above him, what David had done. I asked if Rusty was trying to find David and speak with him, but alas, the answer was “no.” A T & T employees are in call centers spread across the globe (I presume) and finding David is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, especially because David’s supervisor would have to become involved and and and. . . .
Frustrated, I repeated my desire to close Mother’s account and know exactly what we would owe. Patty promised to find out. When she returned to the line, she had to tell me that the early termination fee cannot be waived and the December bill would need to be paid also. I grew louder and more firm, announcing that I had now spoken to five people personally with two more supposedly in the mix for a total of seven with none of the seven telling me the same thing or even telling me the truth. After all, the manager from two days earlier had assured me that the account was closed, $126 would be the last money we would pay, and the deal was cooked and done. David reversed all that by waiving the $126 in favor of $35.29; now Patty channeling Rusty advised that we would owe both $126 and $35.29 but not really because customers pay one month in advance so sometime in January, the advance month would kick in to nullify the $35.29--or something to that effect. Ask Patty.
I cried “foul” and threw in “specious.” Patty left to talk with Rusty again. Finally, Rusty looked at Mother’s use of the line/cell phone. It was nil, nada, null, void, nothing! This finally persuaded the elusive Rusty that Mother really did not use the phone so he was prepared to refund prior months to the amount of $100 and therefore reduce the early termination fee to $26 while the one-month advanced payment would nullify the final $35.29.
If you have followed me thus far--and why would you?--A T & T struck a deal to secure its $126 because, as it turns out, according to Patty, speaking for Rusty, no one can waive the early termination fee. The humans not in charge have to finagle a work-around to exact the $126 pound of flesh and trick the electronic Overmind into believing that it had been paid.
So I’m waiting to see what really happens. Patty with A T & T may be the proof that A T & T can adjust for medical challenges and customers in need. Or if A T & T still assesses the full early termination charge and withdraws the December bill in full without regard to the one month advanced payment, the name Patty _______ may be forever linked to misinformation and men and women who toy with the emotions of their customers, wasting their time and money and energy--just because they can. If her name is not so linked, then David’s will do because apparently, he did nothing that he said he would do.
I cannot say that Patty’s actions, however earnest she appeared to be, have changed my mind about A T & T. It still seems to be a huge corporation with tentacles that wrap customers, squeezing every penny from them.
Granted, anyone can call and plead medical hardship to avoid payment. I’m sure a few people would and do, but the vast majority of us are honest. We deal honestly with others. Businesses too quickly create policies because of a few miscreants instead of respecting the larger number of us who are honest and responsible. Believe in the majority, A T & T.
We’re doing the right thing most of the time. Deal honestly with us, and that, in the end, is my chief complaint. Five voices, five names, five different tales. How abusive would this have been if Mother were trying to conduct her own business? A T & T would have rolled right over her and never looked back.
Monday, November 28, 2011
When Mother learned that her mother had Alzheimer’s, she began in earnest to ward off the disease. First, she walked vigorously up and down the graveled dirt road that ran from the highway, winding up a hillside to their Little Cabin in the Woods, as she called it. The home was, in fact, quite large and quite a distance from the highway so Mom walked a far piece, her dog close by, up and down the road. She stopped to harvest wild blackberries when they were in season and detoured across pastures to collect various grasses and plants that she dried and used as seasonal decorations.
Later, after Mother and Dad had sold the big place and built another home, smaller, with wider doorways for their declining years, Mother continued to walk the sidewalks in her neighborhood. Today, when her companions suggest a walk, Mother must slow down to allow them, one about fifty years younger, to catch up. Mom’s legs are strong, her lungs just as strong.
Three days each week, Mother participates in water aerobics. She loves the ease with which her joints work while under water, but the cold temperature in the pool has begun to trouble her. Still, she goes more days than she misses even though she can no longer manage the drive to and from. Her companions take her back and forth.
Mother also became a vegetarian for a time, and she bought cookware without any aluminum whatsoever when aluminum became suspect for a time. She played bridge as often as she could find a foursome and subscribed to Reader’s Digest so that she could take the monthly vocabulary quizzes. All these practices, experts assured her, would keep Alzheimer’s at bay.
In fact, they do not, or more accurately, they did not for my mother. I cannot speak for everyone. Someone may be vegetarian and nearly 83 without Alzheimer’s. Another may have exercised vigorously all his days and believe that exercise locked dementia outside his gates. But science now hesitates. It isn’t sure that an active body and mind will make enough difference for everyone. We only know that active bodies and minds are better every day for as many days as any of us are granted.
I admire Mother for fighting the good fight, and she continues the fight today. She refuses to yield to a nursing home; she still exercises by walking and swimming. She asks for help now and usually accepts help when it is offered. Many others are incapable of persevering in the face of setbacks. Mother is not one of them. Hers is the type of courage I hope to have.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Ten more years passed, their 60th was on the horizon, and Dad had received a diagnosis: inoperable cancer. I offered to take charge of an anniversary reception in their home. Mother created a guest list, and I designed an invitation, the menu, and scheduled a photographer. My sister, her fella, and her kids refreshed the table while my husband and I washed dishes in the kitchen.
Almost everyone from far and near was present. Almost everyone was a person who would later attend Dad’s funeral, but this time, each guest was able to speak to him, pose for pictures with him, and through hugs, kisses and words, let him know how much he meant to them. Not only did Mother and Dad receive congratulations for their long-lived marriage, they also received the warmth of family and friendship in a time of letting go.
Dad lived one more year, a little past his 61st anniversary, but by the time it arrived on May 10, he was beyond sitting up, toasting, or remembering for more than a minute that he had wed his lovely bride so many years ago. I was there once again to abide with Mother, to let her know that someone remembered.
Now she does not remember her own birthday or the birthdays of her children and grandchildren. Her own wedding anniversary, Dad’s death, and Dad’s birthday pass without remark unless someone or something reminds her. On days such as Christmas or Memorial Day, she honors Dad and those who passed before him by placing flowers on graves. She seems to remember them when she does.
This last year, I was out of state when she wanted to go to her own mother’s gravesite, but my sister said she’d take care of it without Mother. My sister said she didn’t have the time to drive to Mother’s home and return to a place near her own where Grandmother’s gravesite is. Mother would just have to abide.
I would have made time because I have found that giving and being present in the living years is what I can live with. Shared joy is more satisfying so I recommend celebrating while the living are living instead of after they are gone. That 60th anniversary celebration still sustains me, and photos from it still enchant Mother.
Monday, November 14, 2011
If you recall earlier posts, I do not live near Mother. My home is more than two hours from her home so I call daily and ask, “How are you today?” Lately, the answer is “I’m just here,” and the tone resigned.
Mother dreamed of travel. She was always on the go, locally more often than globally, but globally when she could. That is exactly what she hoped to resume once Dad overcame cancer in death or through a long series of surgeries and radiation, but after Dad died, Mother did not travel.
First, she was exhausted. She had cared for Dad at home for nearly two years. Only in the last weeks did hospice intervene, and then over Dad’s objections. He wanted not only to die at home, but also in Mother’s hands—her hands alone. She had struggled to help him up when he fell, cleaned him when he fouled himself, prepared light meals growing ever lighter to sustain him, and cleaned house while he slept.
I went to see them every other weekend, sometimes every weekend, and arranged for someone to take my place at work when Dad was hospitalized or undergoing another surgery. I cannot imagine how I managed work, a home, marriage, and family during all that time while packing, unpacking, and driving, driving, driving more than five hours on the weekends. But my load was much lighter after all. Mother was confined with sickness and death in the guise of the husband she loved for sixty-one years.
A second reason that Mother did not travel right away is that she has always set goals for herself, and one she determined to fulfill before gadding about was to take back her home. She wanted to prove to herself that she could manage the financial demands she had never faced, oversee necessary repairs and renovations, and rest comfortably, unafraid, alone at home.
She had a window replaced, grew overzealous about changing the oil in two cars, and drove to her banks to talk about interest rates. Dad, having been a banker, told her that doing business face-to-face returned better yields, but neither Mother nor Dad was prepared for the changes in banking. Dividends do not go to the CD-holder. The real money is in fees, great whopping penalties, and charges for the privilege of banking; thus, Mother’s tireless efforts brought no reward.
In addition, she could not balance her checkbook. She had never had to do so until Dad was in his final months, but even then, she could not remember to write down check numbers and amounts when she paid bills so her balance was always different from the bank’s. Worse, she could not match a bank statement to her actual register. That’s when she began to ask me for help—just to unravel the mysteries and balance the accounts, then to write checks, and finally, to handle her money.
By then, Mother had lost the momentum to travel. Occasionally, she could not find her way to the hairdresser she had visited every other week for nearly twenty years. Going to the dentist became impossible. She only drove there twice a year and in between, she forgot what roads to travel. She stopped going to church for reasons unspoken, preferring to stay at home and participate in a service on television. She forgot about medical appointments and tried not to go to urban areas during rush hour—or so she said.
Still, as I mentioned earlier in this post, Mother has always set goals and rarely abandons them. Travel was a goal she intended to meet so one day, she set off to return to a town in a neighboring state where she and Dad lived for sixteen years. I had offered to take her, and I had asked her not to go, but one day, she went, proving one of her foremost character traits: resolve, also known as stubbornness.
I waited for telephone calls that never came until Mother returned called to gloat. The truth eked out little by little though. Everything had changed. Landmarks were gone. Roads were busier and wider. Towns had grown into cities. She stopped to ask for directions over and over again. Fortunately, by the Grace of all that is divine, she met kind people, none of whom took advantage of her age and confusion. They led her to her friends, and they led her home.
Now Mother is just here when I call. Both of us are sorry that she is just here. Both of us wish it could be different. But that time has flown.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Mother enjoyed elocution lessons. She learned to enunciate and emote while reading the noble words of others. She never lost her ability to mesmerize her listeners until she lost the power of speech. Oh, she can still say words, but she rarely finishes a sentence and often introduces a letter that does not belong. For example, after the doctor put her on two medicines for Alzheimer’s, she complained of being dinzee rather than dizzy. When asked to write her own name, she has to be coaxed, and even then, she may skip a letter or be unable to form it on paper.
These deficits in her late 70s and early 80s do not detract from the formidable speaker she once was, prone to making pronouncements that proved memorable. For example, when questioned about her requirements or the process she expected me to complete, she turned politician. In other words, she changed the subject—or so it seemed to me. She said curtly, There’s method in my madness, an answer that never failed to shut me up. Many years later, when I read Hamlet for the first time, I realized that Mother had read the same dialogue and integrated Polonius’ observation into her own perceptions, advising me and anyone else that what may appear to be nonsensical may prove to have a logic and order behind it.
I also remember her act when I grew suspicious about a new medicine or anything strange. She’d tease me, usually squinting to examine me as if I were a bug under glass. Then she’d set one finger into motion trying to entice me with Welcome to my parlor. Now I ask you: what would you think? I had no idea what a parlor was or what she had in mind. Her joke failed to reassure me, and I remain timid about many things.
But Mother continued, prone to spout advice in fine tones and high language, saying
· You cannot pluck roses without fear of thorns.
· No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious.
· Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
· I have to live with myself and so / I want to be fit for myself to know.
No one else, including my teachers, spoke as Mother did and so, for many years, I thought she was odd. Only later, when I became a reader of the same authors—Shakespeare, Howitt, Franklin, and Guest—did I realize how much Mother remembered from her elocution lessons and how she had applied the language of poetry to the ordinary, everyday business of living. I saw that adding beautiful expression illuminated the mundane.
Once, when I knelt beside a student’s desk to help her, I lost my balance and began to totter backward. She reached out her hand and grabbed mine as I flailed for support. From my mouth came Blanche Dubois by way of Tennessee Williams: I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers. Standing again, my feet firmly beneath me, I saw the look upon my students’ faces; it said, “Daft. She’s utterly daft,” and I smiled. I knew how Mother felt. There is great fun to be had in repeating great words and even more fun in befuddling young listeners who will, in the end, rise to the challenge and understand. Thanks, Mom.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Many imagine the 1950s as a safe decade, an era when kids could ride their bicycles far from home as long as they returned by sundown for supper. My mother was not so trusting, especially on Halloween.
We never traveled alone for Trick and Treat, and we never strayed beyond the block on which we lived and the block our house faced. Dad followed closely behind, usually waiting on the sidewalk near the street. For a few houses that looked just like any other to us, Dad joined us on the front porch. At these, a man answered our knuckles upon his door, and he didn’t smile when we chimed Trick or Treat. He was often sullen and the house behind him very dim, even dark. Somehow Dad always knew this would happen, and he was within reach every time.
I can’t remember any other kids who had to empty their bags of candy for inspection. Anything homemade and handmade went immediately into the trash.
“Why?” we cried. Mother said things about hygiene, kitchen cleanliness, and recipe tampering—none of which made much sense to us. Mother also seemed to know from which kitchen the treats had come. She could hold a plastic-wrapped popcorn ball in her hand, and it would give up a name like a Magic 8 ball.
“Mrs. H?” she’d ask, and Dad would confirm.
Any piece of candy that appeared to have been unwrapped and rewrapped went into the trash. Candy inside any wrapper torn or loose went into the trash. We complained, of course, but we had no effect whatsoever upon Mom’s standards. We stood for inspection, watching our haul diminish.
We couldn’t even enjoy fresh fruit. Apples were the mainstay on Halloween, perhaps because many are autumn fruits, perhaps because of the old Halloween party-game, Bobbing for Apples, or perhaps because of old Eve’s sin. Whatever the reason, several homeowners served up a nice red apple for Halloween. Mother washed them, then peeled and sliced them very thin. Only then were we allowed to taste one. This peculiarity she never explained. Only later did I learn that wicked people might slide a thin, sharp blade into the heart of the apple to maim or kill small children. The newsman told me so, and I gasped, wondering how Mother knew about evil.
Our costumes were homemade. I was often a gypsy because it only required a scarf with fringe tied around my head and another over a long skirt. I carried a tamborine to complete the illusion, or so Mother said. I doubted her assurance since so many people asked me what I was supposed to be. When I outgrew the long skirt, my younger sister became the gypsy, and I was allowed to wear something Mother threw together from picking through the cedar chest. An old letter sweater transformed me into a cheerleader, she said, but no one else seemed to see the transformation.
Still our costumes were designed to minimize any danger to us. The fabrics were not highly flammable, the masks were all done with make-up so our vision was never compromised, and our feet were shod with ordinary shoes so we did not trip or fall any more than usual. Mother thought of everything, even the time of day. We set out at dusk, before full dark, and we were home ahead of the big kids, two words said with dread on or around Halloween.
When I hear broadcasters and advisors issue cautions about treats, costumes, timing, and adult chaperones, I think, “Well, duh. Mother taught me those, and Mother knew best.”
Monday, October 24, 2011
After two people break each other’s hearts, after they stare into the eyes of the truth, wounding each other with last looks, final words, often ugly, they look back over their shoulders to see the signs posted along their journey, signs that warned of a dangerous curve ahead, signs overlooked, missed, now all too obvious. So it is with disease, especially the disease of Alzheimer’s.
Grandmother, a bookkeeper all her days, could not balance her checkbook any longer. Mother tore up five checks before asking me to write it for her. She had forgotten what and where to write.
For Thanksgiving dinner one year, Mother, who was a fine cook for more than fifty years, forgot to cover diced potatoes with water before boiling them. She added just enough water to keep the potatoes from scorching, and I watched her do it, saying nothing. She had been cooking and stirring much longer than I, and she had been my teacher so I trusted that she knew what to do.
I was wrong, of course. Mother had confused steaming vegetables with preparing potatoes for mashing. Just a momentary blip on the radar screen. A brief second. A slight error. Silly to worry or even notice really. Everyone, of all ages, can make a mistake when so much happens all at once—guests arrive, conversations begin, interruptions occur, dressing and sweet potatoes and pies and appetizers need attention. Who wouldn’t make a mistake?
Sometime in the coming year, Mother forgot to close the refrigerator door, leaving it so many hours that several items had to be thrown out. On another day, she thought of something while rinsing dishes, turned from the sink, and wandered to another part of the house. Many minutes later, she heard the water and wondered who had left it running.
But I’ve been known to try to juggle just one more ball and make a colossal mistake. Recently, I left the hot water running to scald the dogs’ huge water bowl while I scooted around the corner and down a short hall to collect two scoops of dry grain for them. As I bent to scoop, I noticed a spider carcass that the cats had left for me to find so I decided to use the handheld vacuum and suck the evidence into an environmentally-friendly bag. The vacuum cleaner’s motor blocked the sound of the water as I widened my target to give the utility room floor a quick once-over. Then, I remembered the water and ran back to the kitchen.
The force of the hot water had sealed the stainless bowl over the drain. The water now ran from one deep sink into the one beside it. So much for environmental awareness. So much for multi-tasking awards. So much for my keen mind. Surely Mother’s mistakes were simply caused by trying to accomplish too much at once.
Rationalization and empathy only prolonged the inexorable reckoning, however. Mother could not finish her sentences. She struggled for words, often substituting the wrong word for what she wanted. She stopped calling friends and neighbors because she couldn’t remember how to make a call. Occasionally, she tried to speak into the listening end of the telephone. Recently she took an icy cold shower, telling me later that something else in her home needed repair. I soon learned that she simply forgot how to turn on the hot water, and when I taught her again how to turn on the warm water, she looked defeated. She realized in that moment that she had lost something quite basic and once well-known. My heart ached for her. She isn’t safe with the thermostat either. I arrived to find her overheated, the thermostat set at 98 degrees on a hot Oklahoma summer day. I had to advise the companions to teach Mother to put on more layers rather than change the thermostat.
I try to take these errors in stride, to let Mother off the hook, telling her that anyone can make a mistake, but she knows she’s lost ground. She knows she’s lost in a pathless wood much of the time, and I know now that the accumulation of errors is Alzheimer’s. The signs were there. I just didn’t want to believe them.
Monday, October 17, 2011
For several years, Mother and I toured a local museum the day after Thanksgiving. The exhibits included marvelous gingerbread houses created by amateurs and professionals. I liked the contrast between walls that tilted, held in place by great gobs of frosting, and carefully aligned, beautifully appointed turrets laced with frosting and candies.
At the same time, artists, hair dressers, and designers competed for the year’s great honor: the best, most original holiday tree. We saw coil upon coil of green garden hoses spiraling upward, clock radios set within the coils, each tuned to static so that a low hiss echoed from the green bowels. We saw stark trees made of driftwood forming angular limbs projecting upward. Dried bone hung from dried polished branches, a testament to Nature’s stark truths about winter, seasons, and cycles.
Other trees were more traditional, but the effect was a Land of Enchantment, of endless possibilities and art. One was decorated in feathers, beads, and masks in the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, azure, and green. On another, a tree heavily flocked, hung ornaments of white, eggshell, and ecru. Around the corner stood a Victorian tree with violets and cardboard cut-out dolls in fancy dresses.
Mother and I walked slowly, commenting upon each, enjoying most, and admiring the effort and imaginations in evidence. The real treat was in the final room: the quilt that many women had worked together to create since the first month of a new year. The museum docents raised money for the museum by holding a raffle for the quilt. A mere dollar bill bought a ticket and the promise of carrying home that quilt, always in a pattern that evoked home, our state, its heritage.
We never won. Our number was never called. The quilts warmed other hearts in other homes, but we never tired of dreaming—of sugar plum fairies, of holiday joy, of art, beauty, and a wonderful wrap for just $1.
I hope Mother still dreams of such gifts. I hope she still dreams somewhere inside the labyrinth that Alzheimer’s has made.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Everyone laughs, remembering my maternal grandmother for her TV dinners and needlework. Never one in love with housework or cooking, she reduced demands on her time by keeping a house free of knick-knacks and buying frozen meals to heat. If they had made frozen breakfasts then, I’m sure she would have served food on a tin plate round the clock.
Needlework, on the other hand, was time well spent in her opinion. She embroidered three Trees of Life, one hanging now in my mother’s home, my own, and my sister’s. The colors have grown out of fashion; after all, she embroidered these decades ago, but the beauty of the stitches—uniform in size, shapely and precise—make it art.
Grandmother was also a genius at the sewing machine. She specialized in dolls’ clothes: tiny sleeves, delicate lace at the neckline, wedding gowns of net and satin, bonnets, and coats of corduroy with small, perfect button holes. These required patience and precision, the same talents she used as a bookkeeper.
Mother inherited her mother’s talent. Mother mended our clothes so well that the flaw became invisible—as invisible as her hand stitch, the truest testament to her sewing skill. She could mend a seam without a machine, the stitches so small, so tight, so perfect, that it held better than one executed on a machine. She hemmed garments with such a light touch that no trace appeared on the outside.
I remember her, head bent to the cloth, a bright light showing her the way, picking up a thread, pulling it tight, dipping the needle into the weave again. She seemed to take great satisfaction in such a perfect, tiny stitch, the kind that quilters of old strove to achieve.
Once, as a new bride, several hundred miles from her family, making a home in a Colorado oil town, she set out to sew a button on her husband’s suit coat. She wanted it to be perfectly secure; she wanted to complete the task so that she and he would be proud. She struck upon sewing it in place using the small needle holes, then making a perfect circle around it by extending the thread from the inside holes over the outside edge of the button to the inside below, up through the holes, over the edge, again and again until that button was absolutely stationary, covered in thread. She smiled, I imagine, when she was through, pleased at the perfectly spaced threads. Only when Dad tried to put on his coat and button it in place did she and he realize her error. In her quest to correct the errant button, she had overworked the problem and overworked the thread until she created a brand new problem.
Many years later, she laughs as she tells this story and so do I as I remember it, but I also see that it is a parable for her life. She once had intensity and focus. Now that Alzheimer’s has taken those, I like to remember Mother’s stitches because they endure.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Mother loves the movies. She used to follow Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs-up and down into theaters, seeing each film and endorsed performance. Now I take her to see movies as a special outing, and recently, I purchased small popcorns for each of us. Her eyes brightened, and she wondered aloud how much time had passed since she’d eaten popcorn. She ate every buttery, salty kernel. Thirty days later, I took Mom to another movie, offering to buy popcorn for her. She asked me what it was and then told me she never liked popcorn. This has become her pattern. If she no longer remembers a food or drink, she refuses to try it, declaring that she never ate or drank that item in all her days.
Perhaps this is why Mother has lost weight in the past month. Perhaps she thwarts the best efforts of her caregivers who have not known her long and try not to quarrel with her. They just believe her when she says, “I don’t like that” or “I won’t eat it.”
She tried this tactic with me when I took her with me to the grocery store. At the celery, as I tried to pick a stalk, she told me she doesn’t need celery. I countered that foods with moisture and fiber are great choices for her because she has become more sedentary. She shook her head, as toddlers do, and declared that she would not eat the celery if I bought it.
She tried the same with lettuce, apples, cabbage, and avocadoes. I said, too sharply, that I had no intention of arguing about every item up and down the aisles of the store. I asserted again that she needs fruits, vegetables, and water, lots of water. She changed tactics then, declaring that she will never eat all of the supplies before they rot. I told her that cereals and canned goods, full of preservatives good and bad, will endure into the next millennium. She squinted her eyes at me. Widows of her generation believe they have a moral duty to consume everything they buy, to work leftovers into subsequent meals, and freeze the smallest bits that no one consumes for soups and stews. Nothing should go to the waste bin.
Later, Mother voiced her fears that she cannot afford such luxury—so many foods. She can, but one of her worst fears is that she’ll run out of money. She’s asked me what will happen then. I have promised her we’ll cross that bridge together when and if that time comes, that she will never want, but the future is as blank and terrifying for her as her lost past. Alzheimer’s may take much from its sufferers, but it does not take fear.
Mother’s last argument was that she has no appetite. This, I believe. Still, whatever I prepare for her—large meals and small—she consumes. She enjoys the food and has room in her tummy for it all. She just can no longer remember what she likes, what she should eat, or how to prepare it. Everything, especially a grocery store with all its choices, its length, depth and width, is overwhelming and confusing. Mother just shuts down, and in doing so, she risks her well-being more than she understands. She wants to live in her own home for as long as possible, and we want that for her. We have caregivers there daily to prolong her days in her own home, but I know that if she grows weak and sick, caregivers may not be enough. And so I fight with her while shopping for food. I simply want the best for her for the longest stretch of time allowed.
Monday, September 26, 2011
When I was seventeen, adults belonged behind the bench, gavel in hand, a white wig masking their graying, thinning heads of hair, frown lines deeply etched upon their foreheads.
At twenty-seven, I pitied adults. Surely they had never experienced the ambition, the drive, the angst, and hungers of my generation. They were stodgy, incurious creatures.
When I celebrated thirty-seven years, I began to suspect that I had been suffering from a prolonged case of plain, ordinary vanity. I began to question the arrogance of youth, ashamed of willful behaviors.
At forty-seven, humility took root, and I tried to warn the next generations about the hazards of self-absorption. They ignored me.
At fifty-seven, lightning cracked open my brain. I realized that youth dismisses, discounts, and dodges aging and those who have aged because they must deny, as if borne of biological necessity, the fact of their own mortality. Adults are the ground into which they must fall, but bringing this truth into the light requires some hesitation. Acknowledging this truth may even destroy hope. So youth denies, avoids, and obfuscates.
As I grow into my sixties, I must admit that I am growing thinner, fading into invisibility. A young twenty-something scoffed when my husband shared with her something he knows well, works with daily. In disbelief, she asked why she should believe “old people.” As I share my insights and stories, younger listeners simply forebear, nodding and sighing. My tales are of a time deemed irrelevant because youth believes it is the center of the universe, that it is experiencing love and hate, lust and tenderness, parenting and grief for the first time in the history of the world. Youth is a sun around which planets rotate, Age among them, but like Pluto, its place in the scheme of things is suspect.
How much worse it must be to be eighty-two, afflicted with Alzheimer’s. How weary my mother must be of being told what to do, the order in which to do it, what to eat, the reason for those food groups, and how to take care of herself and her home. How frustrating it must be to have been in command, to suffer the illusion of directing one’s own life, to take charge of creating one’s own happiness, only to lose all abilities to command the present, remember the past, and shape the future.
May I remain humble, visible, and relevant—please, and may I grant my mother at least as much relevance, visibility, dignity and respect as I ask for myself.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom - but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know - help make it so there is cause for her to know - that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
These are the final words of Tillie Olsen’s poignant, raw story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” a story that tells about a mother’s regrets, summed up as she stands ironing. She reflects that her oldest daughter . . .
was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
I think of these words often when I reflect upon my own parenting. I too was often anxious but fiercely proud. I loved her then, and I always, always love her now. We sometimes made choices that did not provide the soil of easy growth. I was not a young mother; I was distracted by the demands of work and the unrealistic expectations I placed upon myself. Worst of all, my wisdom came too late. I learned that . . .
Success breeds success and brings with it, freedom. Failure is but a brief detour. We learn to endure, persevere, and overcome. Age also grants us the will to abide. A sense of urgency falls away, and we allow events to unfold without our stir. Our ambition does not die, but rather ebbs as we recognize that we have that which is sufficient. And those prickles and thorns that held us back no longer snag and tear.
I wish I could impart that wisdom to every twenty-something, but most of them would not heed the advice even if they recognized it as wisdom. They are made to shun or at least ignore all evidence of mortality. Their ears are dull to the lessons acquired in aging. They fly closer and ever closer to the sun as did Icarus, but most of them will not fly high enough to melt their wax wings. Most will simply learn to enjoy wind currents nearer to the earth. In their twenties, they will despise lower altitudes and call it “settling;” in their fifties, they will find it comforting and wish they had known then what they later see.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia destroy the peace that passes understanding in our youth. My grandmother cried about the strangers that visited her home every night, refusing to leave when she grew sleepy and asked them to go. Alarmed, I risked sending her into sobs in order to nudge the truth from her. Those strangers, I learned, were Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, and various guest stars. She had lost the ability to separate television programming from her tangible, material world; she had forgotten how to turn off the television to send those annoying men and women on their way so she could rest.
Alzheimer’s also steals the immediate and recent memory, but memories from long ago remain, perhaps longer than the power of speech and ability to write. Grandmother told stories about the wrongs she had endured at the hands of her brothers and sisters. Those prickles and thorns still stung when she was least able to heal.
What put me in mind of all this was a recent conversation with Mother. She had left her home after the companions left for the day to walk next door. I’ve asked her not to go out because we have endured more than 50 days of heat in excess of 100°, and she forgets or refuses to drink enough water so heats that oppress even after the sun has set are very dangerous to her. She misunderstood me when I admonished her, thinking that I intended her to be a recluse, a prisoner inside her home. The misunderstanding snarled further when I chastised her for asking her neighbor for help and accepting an OTC medication to treat her upset stomach.
Before I proceed, let me assure anyone reading that the neighbor called my sister and sought permission to pass along a laxative. The neighbor has been and continues to be a wonderful friend to Mother. She calls her daily and watches over those who come and go from Mother’s home. Mother needs her, and I would not wish to come between them, but Mother cannot reliably report what she feels anymore. She struggles to find words and hopes that her listeners will provide the right one to help her explain herself. She can no longer make phone calls; she cannot hold the series of numbers in her head long enough to dial. Worse, in her community, most numbers require the area code without the long-distance number one, but long-distance numbers need the number one. This new innovation to minimize the telephone company’s overload came too late for Mother to learn and remember.
Mother also does not recognize signals that her body sends. Like toddlers, she is slow to awaken to urges and instincts, and for these reasons, I have asked her companions to restrict all medicines to those recommended by doctors, and I have told Mother not to take anything else until we can bring her body back into balance.
Mother made her hurt and fear known by asking how I would feel if I were alone in this world, with no one to turn to, while sick. She is frail and keenly aware of her vulnerability. Visits, phone calls, companions, and care will never compensate for the terrible losses of old age and Alzheimer’s. That is the sorrow. Contrary to Tillie Olsen’s narrator, there is not enough to live by; still, let her know that she is not helpless. Let her know that fear need not paralyze or drive her out of doors into the dangers she no longer recognizes.