Monday, December 26, 2011

We mustn't forget even when they do. . .

            . . . 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

Vicious Dogs and Sweetie Pies

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

Taking Mom's Car From Her

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

Hey, A T & T. Shylock called . . .

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.