Having a Hard Time

I thumbtacked this to my bedroom wall yesterday. These are words I need to remember.

The other day I waited at the deli counter. The woman ahead of me asked for something they were out of.

“What do you mean?” she screeched at the deli worker. “It’s in the ad! It’s on sale!”

“I’ll check the cooler again,” replied the deli lady, and she disappeared into the back.

The customer turned and said at me. “Is this when I’m allowed to start swearing?! Do you believe this place?!”

I shrugged meekly and thought about the quote. It sure looked like the customer was giving the deli worker a hard time, but, really, she was having a hard time herself. When deli meat becomes the make-or-break in a day, a person is having a pretty bad day.

My father spent Monday night in the hospital. When I walked in his room the next day, his room-mate said to me, “You must be Sally.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering how he knew.

“I’ve heard your name a few times,” he said. “At 1 AM. At 2 AM…”

When my father calls for me in the middle of the night, he’s not giving me a hard time. He’s having a hard time.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to the roommate.

The nurse came in to go over paperwork with the roommate. Honestly, I wasn’t intentionally listening, but only a curtain separated me from them.

Nurse: Who do you live with?

Roommate: I live alone.

Nurse: Do you have any family that lives near you?

Roommate: My kid lives about three hours away.

Nurse: Is he able to come help you when you go home?

Roommate: I ain’t spoke to him in two years.

Nurse: Is there anyone who can help you when you get home?

Roommate: My neighbor helps me if I ask.

Nurse: How many levels in your house?

Roommate: One. It’s an old huntin’ cabin.

Nurse: Do you have running water?

Roommate: Nope.

Nurse: What?! (long pause) You don’t have water?! What do you do?

Roommate: Buy it in town. My neighbor gets it for me.

Nurse: I’m surprised that you don’t have water. (another pause) No, I’m sorry. I’m not surprised. It’s fine.

I was busy helping my father and didn’t hear some of her questions. The next one I heard was –

Nurse: Do you have television?

Roommate: Nope.

Nurse: What do you do?!

Roommate: Whaddya mean, what do I do?

Nurse: For entertainment. In the evening.

Roommate: I have a big garden. There’s lots to do without a television.

I could hear her frustration and his annoyance.

I wanted to lean past the curtain and whisper to her — He’s not giving you a hard time. He’s having a hard time. He didn’t get much sleep last night and he’s about to go into surgery. He’s anxious and alone. Can you get him through the next few hours and then come back to this?

And I wanted to whisper to him — She’s not giving you a hard time. She’s having a hard time imagining your life which is so different from hers.

Taking a moment in the other person’s shoes can make a difference.

I now have a daily reminder to do that.

 

 

Buried Gold

It’s been a rough few days… make that weeks.

My father has been struggling with anxiety. Anxiety and dementia go hand-in-hand. The world doesn’t make sense. Memories jumble around. People telescope in and out. Switchbacks define the landscape.

“DON’T GO THROUGH THAT DOOR!” he cries whenever I leave him alone in his room. Waylaying me with his hand on my arm, he looks over his glasses and says in a confidential tone, “There’s nothing out there. Nothing. You can’t go there.”

But I must and I do. His world may be confined to one room. Mine is not.

If I coax him out to the sun porch, I struggle to coax him back in.

He’s leery of entering the dining room. He forgets that he sits at the head of the table and takes my seat.

Which, of course, is fine. Just odd.

“When I was in World War II, I was stationed by the Red Sea. I buried a lot of gold there. We need to go back and get it,” he told me the other day. Except he was in high school during WWII and was never stationed by the Red Sea. He went there on holiday when he was stationed in Ethiopia in the early 60s, but not WWII.

He told someone today that gold was buried in the back yard. Here.

The only gold we have here are little bits of dental gold that the dentist gave me after she removed some of his teeth. It’s gross, probably not worth much, and certainly not buried. That sounds like a good idea though because I don’t know what else to do with it.

I’ve been so tired because I’m up multiple times during the night with him. He can’t sleep. He’s so anxious.

Last night I made a to-do list so I could make sure I got done what needed doing today. Phone calls, shopping, and mail.

Mary added the part about rainbow sprinkles. Rainbow sprinkles make things better.

Karl added the great mom part. The pat on the back meant a lot.

Sometimes life gives more gut punches than pats on the back.

My father didn’t get to sleep last night until 11 PM — which meant that I didn’t either. He woke me at 5:05 AM.

Through the monitor I heard, “Sally! SALLY!”

I ran downstairs, my heart pounding.

“I’m having terrible chest pain,” he said. I called the ambulance.

The paramedic asked him about the pain.

“10,” my father replied. “Crushing chest pain,” he added.

By the time he got to the Emergency Room, he was fine.

“He has dementia,” I told the ER doctor.

“I got that,” she said, smiling.

“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked my father.

“I like beer,” he said. It was 6:15 AM.

He hasn’t had a beer since he ordered a flight a couple of months ago at his favorite restaurant. He was baffled by the four little beers served on a board. “What do I do with this?” he asked.

“You taste them,” I said.

He gave them to Karl.

We were home from the ER shortly after 7 AM. God bless the ER doctor who didn’t do a full cardiac workup.

Sometimes gold is in rainbow sprinkles and kind words.

Sometimes it’s in the not following protocol and using common sense.

Sometimes it’s buried in the backyard but I’m not going to count on that today.

Why Norway

The place we used to stay in Myrtle Beach had no phones in the rooms. This was back in the 70s, when phones that fit in your pockets weren’t even a twinkle in a computer chip’s eye. Phones had dials and cords.

In those first few years in Myrtle Beach, if someone needed to reach my father at The Teakwood, they had to call the motel office. Someone from the office would find my father and he would have to go to the office to take the call or return the call. Things really advanced when they got a phone with a portable handset.

At the Teakwood

I asked my mother about the lack of phones. Somehow it made The Teakwood seem inferior to its phoned competitors.

“It helps Dad relax to get away from the telephone,” she said. I hadn’t thought about the tyranny of the telephone until that conversation.

I recently heard on a podcast that the presence of a phone at a meal — even if it’s facedown on the table — causes the conversation to be more shallow.

But this isn’t about phones.

It’s about why I went to Norway.

Last year I traveled to Europe for the first time since I was 5 years old. Twice.

The first trip was to take my father to Normandy, something he had longed to do for many years. I was excited for my father, but ambivalent for myself. I knew that I should be excited. I just couldn’t muster up the excitement on my own.

Then we went to Normandy and I loved it. I think I could live in Bayeux and be quite content there. The cathedral, the farmers’ market, the patisseries, the narrow streets, the old buildings — all of it lovely. I didn’t think anything could top Normandy.

Until Bosnia two months later. The land, the people, the hospitality. I came home from that trip quite full.

So when I was feeling depleted this year, and so many people kept reminding me that caregivers need to be sure to take care of themselves, I thought about what had pressed a reset button in my soul and given me rest and strength for the days ahead. Travel. Like the phoneless Teakwood did for my dad.

I applied and was accepted to a writer’s workshop with Ann Voskamp — but it was in the wilds of Alaska. When I realized how remote the workshop was, and how, if something happened at home, I would have a hard time making an emergency trip back, I asked to postpone my attendance for another year.

Then I considered a trip back to Bosnia, but nothing seem to fall into place with that.

Finally, I asked Karl — who had been saying that he wanted to travel — where he wanted to go.

“Norway,” he said.

So Karl, Mary, and I traveled to Norway. And Denmark. And Sweden.

If an emergency had come up, I was always near an airport.

Except for the day we kayaked in the fjords. But truthfully, that was the most renewing day of all.

My Favorite Porcupine

We named him Darius. I’m not sure why. I said we needed to come up with a name for our pet porcupine and Karl suggested it.

Every morning and every evening Darius would waddle out from his spot under the chicken coop and eat apples. For a wild animal, he was surprisingly docile. I could walk close enough for pictures. He would look at me blandly and continue munching his apple.

We first saw Darius when I let our dog out of the house one evening. Maggie ran straight towards the chicken coop. I watched her do her play-with-me dance that she does with our cat sometimes. A crouch, a pounce, a jump back – tail wagging the whole time. When I went to investigate, I saw the porcupine.

“Call Maggie,” I yelled back to the house, and the kids did. The last thing I wanted was a visit to the vet for quill removal. Fortunately, Maggie is fairly obedient and went back inside. Darius waddled into the woods.

On successive nights, I watched him squeeze into a gap underneath the unused chicken coop.

I warned my brother and sister-in-law about the porcupine. They have two puppies that are still learning obedience. Bear and Bozeman might have been more aggressive in wanting to play with a porcupine.

Toward the end of Darius’s visit, he stopped going under the chicken coop. He stayed under the apple tree all day, nose toward the trunk, sleeping.

One day, someone threw an apple at him.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“I wanted to see if he was alive” was the response.

He was.

But his behavior worried me. It’s not normal for a porcupine to sit out in the open all day.

I called the animal control officer.

“I can come right over and shoot him,” he said.

“I was thinking more along the lines of trapping him,” I replied. I couldn’t stomach the thought of him shooting Darius.

Years ago the police came to shoot a sick raccoon in our backyard in Cooperstown. We saw it staggering around in broad daylight. My boys watched from the window while the policeman “took care of it.” But nobody was attached to the raccoon. We hadn’t watched him eat apples or named him or anything.

The animal control officer said, “I can’t get a trap there until tomorrow morning.”

I walked up to explain matters to Darius. He was still sitting nose-to-the-trunk under the apple tree, but he bristled right up when I approached. It was the first time I had seen him do that. I decided not to tell him. I just studied him a while, wanting to store him in my memory.

Later in the day, I saw him trekking across the backyard and into the orchard. He picked a dwarf apple tree and climbed it.

Later Bud saw him the street and head down into the pasture.

In the evening, Bud and I walked around the apple trees in the pasture looking for him. I called animal control and told him the porcupine was gone.

“He was my favorite porcupine,” Mary said, when I told her.

“Mine, too,” I said.

That’s what happens when you get to know somebody.

 

Rescues

I draw the line at worms. I don’t rescue worms in the driveway after it rains.

Mary does that.

One day this spring she went to my brother’s house to feed his puppies and take them out, and it took her much longer than usual.

“Was there a problem?” I asked, picturing some sort of puppy mischief.

“No,” she said, “I rescued a worm in his driveway. Then I saw another and another. I couldn’t stop.”

I rescue red efts when I see them.

They’re just so darn cute.

More often than not, though, I see eft fatalities (eftalities?) as I walk our road.

One day in May, Mary and I found a confused turtle on the lawn. It was heading up the hill, away from the river and the road, but it had a long way to go before it reached any shade.

I texted my brother. “Hey — would you like a turtle to take into the classroom?” He’s known as Mr. Science, and, in the spring, often brings nature-y things to school.

By the time he answered, though, the turtle was gone.

A few days later I saw what I think was the same turtle crossing the road.

“No!” I yelled to it, and turned to bring my groceries in the house. When I got back out, I was too late. The turtle had already been run over by a car.

Sadly, I picked up the poor turtle, its shell cracked and turtle blood oozing out, and carried it across the road to our compost heap. I nestled it down in a little shady spot, returning it to the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you know, but without a true grave.

The next day, when I brought compost over, the turtle was gone.

Honestly, I thought a predator ate it. Or maybe the crows who are always raiding the compost decided to have a little turtle meat with their moldy bread.

Fast forward to today. I was waiting to cross the road to get the mail while a steady stream of cars drove past in both directions.  After the last car, I took one last look down the road to make sure the coast was clear.

A turtle was crossing.

I sprinted to save that turtle.

The crack starts by its head and arcs left to its front leg

How it had made it as far as it did with all those cars was a mystery to me. When I carefully picked it up to carry it across, I saw it had already been injured in the past.

Was it the same turtle? The cracks in the shell were exactly where I remembered them.

I brought it across to the compost heap. It’s a safe place.

I visited it later in the day. It was in a different spot and had fresh injuries.

I guess turtles are slow learners.

Or the world is a dangerous place.

Or both.

Lately we’ve had a new visitor to our yard. I promise not to help it cross the road.

 

 

 

Sari, Not Sari

High temperature yesterday – way too hot

Predicted high today – nearly as hot as yesterday

I decided not to mess around. When I went to work-out at the gym, I grabbed one of my sari skirts to change into after showering.

“You’re all dressed up today,” one of the locker room ladies said. “Where are you headed?”

“Yeah, where are you working these days? We miss you here,” said another.

“Nowhere,” I told her. “Just home. I’m trying to stay cool.”

It’s true. I’m not working there any more. It’s been all of two days and I already miss it.

It’s also true that I put on a skirt to stay cool. I learned on Sunday how comfortable these skirts can be on a hot hot day in July. I wore the skirt to church and stayed in it all day.

Last month I had ordered a number of skirts from a site called Darn Good Yarn.

I confess I fell prey to an onslaught of Facebook advertisements. However, a few of my friends had “Like”d the company so I visited.

They sell yarn (obviously) but I don’t “do” any yarn crafts. I knit one mitten once. I crocheted about a 4 inch square once. I don’t think either of those qualify.

But they also sell these wrap-around skirts made from recycled saris. No two skirts are alike.

From their website:

Each skirt is handmade by our co-ops in India out of recycled saris and turned into the beautiful finished skirt you see. With your help, these artisans are able to sustain year-round employment.

Some of my other skirts

I love the idea of repurposing and employing women in another part of the world.

Wrap-around skirts are forgiving, especially for people between sizes. If my size goes down (which is what I’m working toward), the skirts will still fit. If my size goes up (ugh), the skirts will still fit. And, if I stay the same, the skirts will still fit. They come in three sizes – regular, x-large, and child – and in varying lengths from mini to maxi.

Because every skirt is unique, you tell them the size, the colors you like, and the length. They do the rest. I have not been disappointed.

It’s rare that I do product reviews here, but this is something I love.

Also from their website:

From the artisan to the person who packs our orders, Darn Good Yarn is fueled by infusing Good into all parts of our business. From our warehouse and order fulfillment partnership with Schenectady ARC (a non-profit dedicated to providing employment for adults with developmental disabilities) to our employee benefit programs, our goal is to create a better world by caring and doing things the slightly harder way. In a world of short-cuts and cookie cutter experiences, we believe that when you slow down in order to build that this creates more sustainability and stronger communities.

I can get behind a business with those values.

ps — I think they’re running a sale for 4th of July — buy two sari skirts, get three free.

Not Your Typical Swim Camp

Several years ago the aquatics director asked me if I would be interested in running the swim camp.

“It wouldn’t be your typical swim camp,” I told her. “I don’t want to do freestyle on Monday and backstroke on Tuesday. I’d like it to be fun and a little goofy.”

She let me run with it.

I came up with the theme of “Swim Like a Beast” and chose a different animal for each day: jellyfish, golden retriever, otter, dolphin, and frog.

The best thing that came out of that camp was a game called Otter Island. My friend Katy was helping me. I told her I was thinking about a game like “Sharks and Minnows” (standard pool fare) but we could make it sharks and otters because sharks eat sea otters.

“Yes,” Katy said, “and we could put one of the big mats in to be an island where they could go for safety.”

The kids love climbing on the big floating mats.

The otter island mat

“When they’re on the island,” I said, “they run the risk of being grabbed by an eagle.” I had read that bald eagles predate on otters.

“So we can have kids on the side with noodles to act as eagles,” Katy said. “If they get tapped by a noodle, the eagle got them.”

Before long, we had concocted a game that was fairly crazy and totally fun.

I realized then how fun it is to collaborate with Katy. We both throw ideas around, bouncing them off each other, like the ping-pong balls that sometimes show up in our games.

Katy has ping-pong balls that look like eyeballs. She’s that kind of person.

I’ve never done the same theme twice for swim camp. One year we did Skull camp — and we did lots of sculling, trying to teach kids how to feel the water. One year we did the Incredibles and called it an Incredible Swim Camp.

In fact, as we were putting stuff away on the last day, Katy said to Mat, our other full-time helper with camp, “Next year it’s up to you. You could probably do the Incredible Swim Camp again.”

Mat stopped piling kickboards and said, “Wait — what?! Aren’t you two going to do it?”

Katy said, “No, this is my last year. I only did it so I could work with Sally one more time.”

I laughed. “It’s my last year, too. I only did it so I could work with Katy.”

I love collaborating with Katy.

This year’s camp was called A Quintessential Swim Camp — and we used the five classical elements: earth, water, air, fire, and æther. We did science-y things in and out of the water.

On Thursday night, as we were trying to come up with a bang-up game to end on, Katy and I bounced ideas off each other — and ended up incorporating those ping-pong balls.

“What if we had kids blowing ping-pong balls across the pool –” she said.

“Okay, that’s the air,” I said, mentally check-marking one element.

“And other kids could be splashing them or making waves in the water to make it difficult,” she said.

“That’s water,” I said. “How about it we have a third group of kids pretending they are stuck to the bottom — you know, can’t move — to represent earth?”

“Yeah! And they could be trying to grab the ping-pong ball or tag the person or something,” she said.

“It sounds chaotic,” Mat said — and it was. Chaotically fun.

Swim camp was fun — once we figured out those initial obstacles — but I’m not doing it again.

“I’ve heard that before,” one of my kids said.

This time I mean it.