Halloween

Last night mom called me and said, “Karen [the manager at her retirement home] gave me a bag of candy to hand out to the trick-or-treaters. What they used to do was a few of us would stand in the foyer and pass out candy to the kids in the evening. But now they are going to hand out candy tomorrow at noon. ‘That’s not the way you do it,’ I told her. This is All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day. That’s when you hand out candy. I think they’ve all gone crazy.”

Mom has always enjoyed that little ritual ever since she moved to Orchard Park 17 years ago. And if they would only listen to her they would get things straight. But alas, managers change, rules changes, ideas change. And mom is none to happy about it.

But I think she may have been confused that last night was Halloween. I was. I thought Halloween should fall on a Saturday night, but in truth, it falls on a different day each year. This year, it just so happens to fall on a Sunday, which gives mom the opportunity to recognize the original religious connotation. And, she’ll be in church at noon when they start handing out candy.

I could not offer any explanation for them having lost their minds. When I tried to talk, she just said, “I can’t hear you.”

If I could think of a costume idea I could dress up and drive over to her place today and trick-or-treat at her door.

This photo was taken about five years ago when mom was 95 or 96.

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Julie Gray

Julie was my friend. We didn’t know each other very long–just a few years–but in those few years she made a lasting impression on my life. When I helped start a community newspaper in the town where I live, Julie was the mayor’s administrative assistant. She also used to teach English. Her daughter Kathy says Julie was an “appreciator of expression, interested in art, and the creative process….she was my muse and my mentor.”

Julie saw from the beginning that I was more interested in the creative process than in churning out the news. She was also, I realize, my muse and mentor.  When I wrote stories, I wrote for Julie because I knew she was reading and appreciating. She encouraged me when she saw that I was writing against the wind, struggling to make the paper a worthwhile entity. When we did our first focus group many people showed support. But then the reality set in that a newspaper runs on advertising dollars. The uphill battle had begun.

There was another uphill battle. I was the new editor and there were people who were dissatisfied with local politics. They wanted the newspaper to somehow make it all right. Julie knew what I was up against, but she never entered into the fray. She remained loyal to her boss, to the city, and though we never talked directly about city politics, I gained insights from her I might not have had.

Each month Julie prepared the council minutes and would drop them by my office or I would go to her office. We would laugh and talk for a few minutes and then we’d go back to work. If I had questions about the minutes, I would call her. On council days, she sat behind the council taking notes. I sat in front of the council taking notes.

I left the paper after 15 months to have more time to take care of mom. Julie told me she was disappointed I was leaving, but for the next year and a year we exchanged brief, intermittent emails.

In early summer, Julie called me and said that she and Ron were celebrating their 20th anniversary. She wanted me to photograph them for the anniversary announcement they would put in the regional newspaper. Then, in her straightforward, characteristic style, Julie said, “I’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer.” She said she wanted the photo for the announcement, but also for her family in case “she didn’t make it.”

We met at a local arboretum rose garden in June. Julie loved flowers, like she loved music, art and travel. She and Ron had traveled to Vienna the previous summer with their choral group.

They posed naturally for the camera, talking with each other as they gazed into each other’s eyes as if I wasn’t there. Then they would each turn and look directly into the camera. There was no guile, nothing forced, only compassion, love, sympathy, heartache, clarity, sorrow, and joy in each other’s company. It’s a moment I will not forget.

Julie was planning a trip to Wyoming to attend her grandson’s wedding. When they returned I would drop the CD of photos by her office. But then she had to go to Seattle for chemotherapy. By the time I took the CD to her, the change was startling. She was sitting at her desk hooked up to oxygen. Her voice was raspy and I knew then how very ill she was. “But, here she is still working,” I thought. She was poised, matter-of-fact.  I wanted to give her the photos as a gift, but I knew that she expected to pay something. I charged a minimal rate knowing that if I gave them to her it was like I was saying, “I know you are going to die.” I did not want to acknowledge I was going to lose my friend when I wasn’t paying attention. I told her I would call soon.

Julie died Sept. 3 and I didn’t know for another week. I received an email from Ron requesting the CD of photos because he couldn’t find the one I gave Julie. He assumed I knew that she had died. I was stunned that it had happened so fast.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I would miss Julie, how much I would come to appreciate the beautiful friend she was. I had taken it for granted that Julie would be here, that I would see her again, that I would get a chance to say goodbye, that she would have many months. Instead, my first thought when friends recently suggested I start an online newspaper, was, “I wish I could talk to Julie.”

“I could always ask her about anything,” Kathy says. “And she’d have something really valid to say–or to think about.  I’m finding more and more, that is the quality that so many people  came to appreciate most about her.  She would help anyone, if they wanted to know the answer.  She would give so freely.”

Julie wrote in May in response to an email from me.

“Wow, 101. That makes me feel really young! I’m glad to hear she’s doing well, glad for you and for her.

I’m doing well except for allergies that have been sitting on my chest all Spring.

Work is about the same, very busy at times. I’m excited about the Library moving. Michael deserves to have the bigger, better space. We have been working toward that for years, and finally the Director and Board are behind it. That’ll put the Court in the old library space, and we’ll fix up the old Public Works office for the Youth Center. The logistics of all of that will keep us pretty focused for the coming months. Fun!

Then there are Ronnie’s gigs and Kathy’s family and a Wyoming grandson getting married this summer. It’s all good.

I haven’t made any announcement yet, but I am thinking about retiring at the end of the year. I’m getting tired.”

Little did we know, Julie. We will sorely miss you.

Note: I’m aware of the tragic irony between the title of the previous post and the content of this post. It’s just the way it happened.

You promised me I’d drop dead

This is a week for doctor’s visits. Nothing serious. Yesterday I took mom to the eye doctor, but because the waiting room was full of people, mom decided she wanted to come back “later,” as in another day. Instead she rode with me to pick up my computer. I took the long way to downtown, along one of the older, more picturesque, streets in town where enormous maples, dogwoods, flowering plums, and magnolias put on a show every spring and fall. Mom always enjoys our semi-annual spring and fall rides.

However. There’s always a tiny complication. Traffic. I’ve been hearing her comments about traffic my entire life. A red light is a personal affront, cars slowing down an inconvenience that she shouldn’t have to tolerate. I was lucky. I hit most of the green lights all the way through town, but then we hit a snag. Nothing remarkable. It’s a four-lane road in downtown Yakima, Washington, for cryin’ out loud. We’re not talking Seattle gridlock.  The traffic slowed down for all of 30 seconds. Driving with her in Seattle would give her a nervous breakdown–and me.

I waited. I heard it coming. Then the comment.  I patted mom’s knee and said, “Mom, it’s fine. Really.”

“Well, we had been so fortunate,” she said.

“Mom,” I retorted impatiently, “it has nothing to do with fortune. It’s a traffic light.”

Then, today we went to her medical doctor for a referral for physical therapy to help build strength in her legs. She’s having a harder time getting up from the sofa, but as long as she’s healthy there’s no point in moving her to a higher-care facility just because she can’t get up. When she can’t get up at all…that’s a different story.

The doc is the one who, when mom was lying in a hospital bed unresponsive because of what we thought was a stroke, said that if it were anyone else but mom he would count her out. Next morning he called to tell me she was sitting up in bed, talking, laughing, and wanting to eat. That was five or six years ago. She has been fall-free, stroke-free, episode-free for an entire year, which means this was the first time he saw her in a year and hadn’t ordered blood work in two years.

In an aside, he told us about his great grandfather who lived to be 108. Mom said, waving her hand, “I don’t want to hear about that,” which is is the signal that says, “I don’t want to live that long.”

Then she said, “You promised me I would just drop dead.”

He said, “So, are you going to sue me?”

After leaving the examining room he sent the nurse in to give mom a flu shot, and to take her vitals. The nurse was a fill-in nurse. She came in for a minute and then left to get the shot. Mom mouthed the words, “I miss Helen.” Helen is the regular nurse who is polite and efficient, but otherwise not memorable.

“Why do you always complain,” I asked. “I never complain,” she said. “Yes, you do, mom.  It’s either the traffic being too slow, or the waiting time in the doctor’s office, or you don’t like who the nurse is, [or the nurse or caregiver is overweight].”

Silence.

Mom had every right to voice her opinion and as it  turns out, mom was right about the fill-in nurse. She was slow and she kept trying to make small-talk with a deaf person. What is up with that? You’re a nurse, this woman is 101 years old and if you paid close attention, you would realize that talking to her in a soft, sweet voice is not only unproductive, but annoying. I finally had to tell her, “She can’t hear, it’s hard to make small-talk with her.”

“Oh,” she said.

I was still annoyed at mom for judging this woman. I was annoyed with the woman for being so annoying. I was annoyed with myself for my lack of patience with both of them. And I was annoyed because doctor’s visits are my least favorite thing to do with mom.

Tomorrow I will take mom back to the eye doctor and then to the lab to draw her blood.

I once again renew my commitment to be patient, to not react when she inevitably complains about red lights and traffic, about slow service, or overweight people. I’ve had plenty of time to practice. You’d think I would have learned the lesson by now.

Tremor abatement

The computer is back. Blood pressure down, work getting done, emails caught up, Facebook posts current. That’s the longest I’ve been without a computer in years, except for intermittent use of Ben’s computer, which hardly counts. I have come off this involuntary fast with new insights about Ben’s extraordinary patience and respect for his ability to sit at his computer and not scream in frustration as I was want to do whenever I used it. Gads, it’s slow. But since he doesn’t write a blog or mess with photos as much as I do, it’s not as big a deal. But still…

What I did love about not having the computer is that it refocused me. I would suggest to all computer addicts such as I, that you voluntarily fast from the computer one day a week/month, a week a year, an hour a day? I don’t know, but it’s remarkable how it helps you prioritize.

For starters, I cleaned my kitchen. No, not just the cursory daily wipe-down and dishes in the dishwasher, but I actually discovered where that weird smell was coming from. It was the green tomatoes in the basket that I thought were going to ripen, but instead rotted. Wow, that was fun.

I went through some files in the storage bedroom and found some information I had been seeking, but wasn’t willing to look for because it was a lot more fun to learn whether or not someone on my Facebook page went on a trip to Yosemite.

I got out my crocheting that I hadn’t work on for a year and started crocheting a Christmas scarf for my son’s girlfriend.

I hand-wrote two greeting cards instead of sending an email.

I looked up the spelling of a word in an “off-line” dictionary, i.e., a book, on the bookshelf.

We helped our neighbors harvest wine grapes for a day and a half. We would have done that anyway because it’s fun helping harvest grapes in our neighbor’s small vineyard on a fall day. We got to know other neighbors who came to help and enjoyed good food Nicole whipped up for lunch, which we ate on the deck of their 1912 home, which overlooks a broad valley below.  Plus we each went home with a bottle of their good wine.

I painted the window and door trim in my bedroom, a project I had started a year ago. I was able to get it done because I wasn’t losing my focus checking emails, reading about the latest drama in the news, or otherwise disengaging from the real world. Instead, I watched a Erin Brockovich and a football game.

Not to be misunderstood or to sound more undisciplined than I am. I really do other things during the day when I have my computer. I don’t play solitare for hours. (I used to play Tetrus, but it’s too addictive.) I work in my garden, care for mom, clean house (some), I read, pay the bills, talk with Ben (some).

But the long and short of it is this: I’m a writer and a photographer and I need the computer to perform my work. I’m also learning to promote both our businesses through Facebook and my photo blog. And reading the news is really important (I think).

That’s my explanation, anyway, for the tremors I got when for six days I didn’t have a laptop glued to my face.

I’m so glad to be back!!

Withdrawal

My computer went into the shop yesterday. When the technician told me they were going to have to send my computer to Apple for a thorough diagnostic because of continuing issues, I immediately went into withdrawal. What will I do without my computer, I whined.

My morning routine at the computer: writing, blogging, Facebook, email, and photos, was being disrupted. For now I’ll peck things out on Ben’s “ancient” and painfully slow G4. I didn’t realize how spoiled I was. But mostly, I’ll find other things to do for a few days. Maybe I can get some housework done. See you in a few days.

Election 2010

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be helping my mom fill out her 2010 election ballot, I would have said you were nuts. But yesterday, that’s what I did. She considers it a right and a privilege to be able to vote, even though she isn’t up on the candidates and issues as she once was. She used to read the voter’s guide from cover to cover.

Now, it was my responsibility to help her vote without injecting my opinions, except that for those who know me, you know that is not possible. Interestingly enough, since the last election, however, she is much more willing to trust my opinion.

Mom was once a socialist. She believes in “to each according to their needs, from each according to their means.” It’s an altruistic notion, except that it doesn’t work. It’s the basis of our current Medicare system, which has worked beautifully for her, but is destined to go bankrupt along with the rest of the country if we don’t change something.

We are getting clearer about that scenario as immigration reform languishes, inert in a broken system of let’s-help-everyone-but-common-sense-be damned. My brother’s doctor told him recently that unless the new health care reform bill is repealed the country will be bankrupt in ten years. “We can’t take care  of everyone,” he said.  He said he is required by law to provide medical care for illegals, but at the cost of seniors whose Medicare has been cut to pay for it. He said my brother’s costs were going to keep going up and he would receive less in the way of services because of the bill. That means me and Ben, too.

In other words, we get thrown under the bus to help illegal immigrants. This does not include the many who have immigrated, some of whom are our friends and who are great citizens. It’s not about racism, it’s about common sense. It’s not a lot different than parents in a dysfunctional family supporting the drug addict son who ends up taking them for all their worth because they are too weak to set appropriate boundaries with tough love. We are afraid to say, “Sorry, but you can’t come here, because if you do our own citizens are going to have a much tougher time (i.e. our country will go bankrupt and then we won’t be able to help anyone).”

But to the socialist, that’s okay, as long as we are trying to help them. It’s okay that the country’s wealth is reduced, that we are all reduced to the same pitiful state, as long as it’s fair. I don’t agree. And neither does mom.

Different paths

My brother called me and asked if I was angry with him for not being  here more. No, I said. How can I be angry? Yours is a different path. I may be designated caregiver, but he is the designated closer–the one who closes the deal when mom needs to do something that she is resisting and she won’t listen to me. That doesn’t happen as much. Her will is strong, but I have also learned to be more tactful. “Mom, what are you going to do when you can no longer get up?” “I’m going to call Karen.” “Good plan, mom.” I’ve learned to let go more and let it happen, rather than trying to second-guess her or the future. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had learned that earlier.

I used to talk and talk –and talk — about what I thought mom needed to do. Sometimes I was right–(stop driving at 95, receive radiation treatments for cancer, stop going down a steep flight of stairs to get your hair done) but if she wouldn’t listen he would step in, using his maleness and the oldest child influence to move her into submission. Now it is harder for him because she can’t hear. But she also trusts me to make the right decision for her.

His path, like my friend in North Carolina who has been with her mother in her last days and hours of her life, was not to be the decade-long on-site caregiver. In a previous post in a moment of pettiness, I wondered if  my friend would have had the patience to care for her mother for a decade. It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t her path. She is there at the perfect time for her mother, sharing with me the poignant details of her last hours. A gift. Her path.

There are some who lose their parents in a quick and poignant passing like Shoshana who lives in California, a long way from her native New Jersey where her mother lived. Her brother was left to be primary caregiver when she realized that she was a sun-lover. When he called Shosh to tell her their mother was dying and was in a coma, Shoshana got on a plane for New Jersey. When she arrived in Chicago the plane was delayed because of a snowstorm. Shoshana called her brother and asked that he hold the phone up to her mother’s ear. She said, “Mom, I’ve been delayed in Chicago. I love you, please don’t wait.  It’s okay for you to go.” Twenty minutes after she hung up, her mother died.

Others of us have parents live for years with Alzheimer’s like my cousin Jim who had the nine-year goodbye with his dad, my Uncle Gordon. My friend Surya has been saying goodbye to her mother with Alzheimer’s for a decade or longer. My friend Bev sat at her mother’s bedside for years, every day, to that Bev didn’t know anything else but caring for her mother.

Different paths.

Postscript: Ben says my posts are sometimes dark, that I need to find a way to inject more humor. There’s a term for that kind of humor. I tell him I’m only telling the truth. If it’s not funny, I can’t help it.