New Memory

This morning I received a notification — “You have a new memory.” I laugh at those notifications. They seem so silly.

New memories — pshaw. Memories are, by their very nature, sort of oldish.

This morning, though, I paused to look at my “new” memory.

Two years ago today, I was in Normandy.

Two years ago today, I first heard the story of British gliders landing in Normandy to take the Pegasus Bridge — gliders whose pilots used stopwatches and compasses to navigate, some landing a mere 47 yards from their objective. I’m still amazed at that feat.

Two years ago today, I stood in the Canadian cemetery in Normandy, France, and grieved for those young men whose names were carved in the stones there. So brave. So young. But such a beautiful place.
Five years ago today, I was watching Karl play tennis. He and his partner, Michael, were killing it.

Five years ago today, at about the same time, 1400 miles away, my first grandson was born.

I didn’t need a photo app on my phone or Facebook to remind me of that memory. I woke up thinking of him. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY!!)

On the other hand, my father needed the memory prompts.

“Remember our trip to Normandy,” I asked him.

“When was that?” he replied.

“Two years ago today we went on our first tour.”

I handed him the photo book and memorabilia I had put together from that trip.

His eyes grew misty as he leafed through it all. He carefully unfolded the maps of the cemeteries and of Paris, studied them, and then folded and placed them back in the pocket of the book. I couldn’t tell if he remembered or not.

“That was a good trip,” he said.

It was a good trip.

As we travel down this other road of forgetting who, what, and how, I often think, We’ll always have Normandy (and Paris, I suppose).

 

Laughter IS Good Medicine

Last week, when the EMTs arrived at the house, one asked my father, “How do you feel?”

“With my hands,” he replied.

The EMT didn’t get it.

I don’t think he expected an 80-something man who had just had three syncopal episodes to be doling out one-liners.

My brother and I both laughed. Then Peter tried to get him to answer the question by asking it again, “How do you feel, Dad?”

Same response.

He often answers “How did you sleep?” with “With my eyes closed.”

His joking may irritate some, but not me. I am so glad to have been raised with a sense of humor. It’s such a gift — to be able to laugh in the midst of a terrible situation.

I remember when we were all gathered around my mother’s bed as she was dying. Different people were sharing things she had said and done, thanking her for the many ways she had blessed us.

During a lull, one of my kids said, “No charge.”

We all burst out laughing (and maybe crying). That’s what my mother would say when we got up to use the bathroom.

It could be a little embarrassing when we had someone over to visit. They would ask where the rest room was and excuse themself. My mother would call after them, “No charge!”

But it was her way of being funny — and it carried long into her dementia.

When I have dementia, I’m sure I’ll tell dumb jokes. I’ve been gathering them this year for the swim team.

I’m not coaching this year so that I can be home more with my father. Now my role is parent-coach liaison, registrar, information disseminator, question answerer, meet signer-upper, and joke teller.

I carved out the joke teller niche for myself.

One of the other coaches is very punny. She helps me.

Now the kids are sharing jokes with me, too. Here’s today’s offering from a swimmer:

Who cleans the sea?
Mermaids

Why did the fish go to the sand bank?
To get sand dollars!

In November, I started off with a few swim jokes,

Q: What kind of race is never run?
A: A swimming race.

Q: Why would the boy only do the backstroke?
A: He just had lunch and didn’t want to swim on a full stomach.

Q: What did the ocean say to the swimmer?
A: Nothing. It just waved.

Q: Why did the vegetarian stop swimming?
A: She didn’t like meets.

Moved on to snow jokes in December,
Q: What do you call ten rabbits hopping backwards through the snow together?
A: A receding hare line.
Q: What do Snowmen call their offspring?
A: Chill-dren.
Q: Which is faster — hot or cold?
A: Hot, because you can catch cold.
And then fitness jokes in January.
I went to the gym and decided to jump on the treadmill. People were looking at me weird so I decided to jog instead.
Why did the elite swimmer buy tape from the hardware store?
Somebody told her she was ripped!
Someone tried to tell me that Yoga was a good workout. I thought that was a bit of a stretch.
My favorite workout is between a lunge and a crunch. I call it lunch.
Before I knew it, anything was fair game, even Armageddon.

So what if I don’t know what Armageddon means? It’s not the end of the world.

What’s at the end of everything? The letter G.

Once I told a chemistry joke. There was no reaction. (<—- That’s a joke.)

Today I was sending out information on timing at the next meet. This was the joke I adapted.

The past, the present, and the future all arrived at the swimming pool. Things got a little tense.

What can I say? Laughter is good medicine.

 

Birthday post

Today is my birthday.

5 years ago on this day I was at Laity Lodge, enjoying the warm Texas sun, the beautiful Frio River, and one of my favorite places in the world, an art installation called Threshold. Since Laity Lodge has no cell reception and very limited wi-fi, I used a little landline telephone room to call home and speak with my family.

Threshold at Laity Lodge

My husband and children all wished me a happy birthday. Then Bud said, “Your brother Stewart called to wish you a happy birthday. I told him that you would call him when you got home.”

Ten days later — long after I had gotten home and had plenty of time to return that call — on Ash Wednesday, I received a call from my sister telling me that Stewart had had a heart attack and died.

Stewart – Thanksgiving 2013

I think about that every year on my birthday.

I never returned his call.

I never heard his voice again.

My kids have been asking what I want for my birthday, and, honestly, I couldn’t think of a thing. My father used to tell me that I was the richest person he knew. Then he would laugh and add, “And maybe some day you’ll have money.”

I am rich.

January 1, 2019

But this morning I was thinking about what I want most for my birthday.  I know what it is now.

I want you to make that call you’ve been meaning to make.

Stop in to visit that person you’ve been meaning to see.

Drop a line to an old friend.

Or relative.

Or neighbor.

Mend a fence.

Build a bridge.

Reach out.

Life is so short.

This morning, as I sat at the table with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun (my birthday treat for myself), I opened my computer to begin writing this post —

–when I heard a terrible crash from my father’s room.

I ran in and found him on the floor.

“Dad, Dad,” I called, as I patted his cheeks and tried to get a response, but his eyes were open and fixed, and he was unresponsive.

My husband and son carried him back to bed. When he came around and was semi-conversant, he wanted to go eat breakfast, but he barely made it to the door before he had a repeat episode.

And then a third one a little later.

I write this from the Emergency Room.

He has been awake, but he doesn’t remember anything that happened this morning.

They’re running tests.

And I’m spending my birthday with my father. I have no regrets.

 

Update on Dad

I realize that I sidestep the issue all the time, dancing around, skirting the elephant in the room.

It’s far easier to talk about the brindle boxer that is about to be euthanized than it is to talk about my father.

“How’s your father doing?”

Golly, how many times a week do I hear that question? It’s such a kind question, too, coming from a sincere concern for a man who touched so many lives.

This road only goes in one direction, I want to tell them.

But I don’t.

Usually.

He’s having more trouble with incontinence, I think to myself, but don’t say.

That’s not the kind of thing one talks about in the lobby of the gym or the checkout of the grocery store.

He needs help getting dressed.

He’ll spend ten minutes scraping an empty bowl after lunch; he can’t stop himself from pursuing every last bit of soup that may remain.

He spends hours at his dresser, rearranging his military insignia and lapel pins and tie bars.

He has taken to sorting cards. At first I thought he was playing Solitaire, but it’s actually a sorting exercise and I marvel at the way he pushes himself.

He’ll have half a dozen books piled on the tray table next to his chair, but he’ll still scan the bookshelves and pull off another with that so-many-books-so-little-time mentality.

Even though he can still read, I don’t think he gets the sense of what he’s reading.

His favorite book to read: The Oxford Dictionary.

The dictionary that his father gave him before he went to college still sits on a shelf here. A few months ago, my father pulled it off and said to me, “We should probably get rid of this. It’s falling apart.”

But I know why he kept it all these years — and I’m not going to throw it away.

Some things you hold onto, and clasp to your heart, even though they’re old and falling apart.

“How’s your father doing?”

“He’s happy,” I tell them. “I’m so glad we can keep him at home.”

And they pat me on the arm, or look knowingly at me, and smile.

“Thanks for asking,” I say.

It’s nice to know people care.

The Lucky One

I was sitting at the train station in Charleston, South Carolina.

The evening was a balmy 60-something — balmy in comparison with the 30-something I left behind in New York that morning. The station was clean, well-lit, and sparsely populated. I sat on a blue bench playing word games on my phone while waiting for Mary’s train to arrive.

“Last time I rode this train, it was an hour and a half late,” a man said. I looked up to see a wiry African-American man with gray bristle-y hair poking out from the edges of his Kufi. “Folks waiting for me in Savannah had to change their plans all around because of this train.”

I just smiled at him. My train experience is pretty close to nil.

A few minutes later my daughter texted me from the train. “Conductor says we should be in Charleston around 8 – 8:15.” Over an hour late.

Image result for north charleston train station

North Charleston train station, photo from abcnews4.com

The man was pacing the train station. On his next pass near me I told him what Mary had said.

He shook his head and sat down beside me. “This train never runs on time,” he said.

How we got from there to where our nearly hour-long conversation took us, I don’t know. Before I knew it, he was telling me about “Mama.”

“I was the lucky one,” he told me. “I took care of Mama. They was eleven of us, and I was lucky number nine.”

He shook his head and smiled, a gesture he repeated often as he remembered his mother.

“Mama was smart. She got her degree in journalism. You better believe we learned how to write. She and Daddy sent us to parochial school in New York — all eleven of us.”

I thought of how my parents valued education. My grandfather, my father’s father, never went to high school, but each of his children went to college and graduate school.

“Mama worked for Richard Nixon. She helped with his campaigns in New Jersey and he gave her a job with the federal prisons there.”

My father loves to tell people how he met Haile Selassie. Rubbing shoulders with the mighty.

“When my daddy was dying, he called me to his bedside. ‘Ali,’ he says, ‘Ali, you take care of your mama.’ I said to him, ‘Daddy, of course I’ll take care of Mama.’ But he says, ‘No, I mean it — you really take care of Mama.'”

He shook his head and smiled. “I was the lucky one.”

My father outlived my mother — but I watched him take care of her and I helped where I could. Making sure my mother was well-cared-for was a priority.

“I moved in with Mama.”

I moved in with my father.

“Mama fell and broke her femur. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said nobody would operate on her. She was too frail. 90 years old. 90 pounds. All they give her was morphine to ease her pain. That was her last month alive. I kept her in her own home.”

We aren’t there yet. I try not to think about my father’s last days.

“I give the eulogy at Mama’s funeral. I look over at my brothers and sisters boohooing, and I said, ‘What you boohooing about? You didn’t come see her. You didn’t take care of her. You just feeling sorry for yourself.’ I said that to them. And they was mad. Hoo-boy! They was mad.”

He chuckled a little to himself. “But, you see, I was the lucky one. I got to care for my mama. When she died, I didn’t cry. I had given her everything I had.”

No regrets living — I could relate to that, too.

I’m thankful that my family pulls together. My siblings help — but I know that I’m the lucky one, too.

The train pulled in to the station and we both stood.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said, and he extended his hand to me. “I’m Ali.”

I already knew that.

“I’m Sally,” I said, and shook his hand.

“Been real nice talking to you,” he said again.

It had been real nice listening.

 

 

Encourager or Discourager

Last week, I sat at the timing table in my effort to learn how to run the computer for swim meets.

The woman on my right was the embodiment of sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice. She was genuine, kind, enthusiastic, and, like me, new and a little overwhelmed by the goings-on at the table.

The woman on my left was a pro. She had been working the table for many years. She was calm and unflustered, even when things got crazy.

Pool acoustics are never great, so neither woman could not hear what the other was saying.

Sugar-and-spice nudged my elbow during the 50 Free. “See that boy over there?” She nodded at a swimmer in the far lane. “I wish I had taken a video of him on the first day of practice,” she said. “He could barely swim. Look at him go!”

I watched the boy thrashing at the water slowly making his way down the pool far behind the other swimmers.

On my other side Ms. Pro said, “Oh, God! I don’t know why they allow that kid to swim! He moves in inches! This is going to take forever!”

Behind her, a young woman echoed her sentiments. “His stroke is awful! Look at him. He’s not cupping his hands!”

Sugar-and-spice said again, “He’s doing so well!”

Ms. Pro groaned at his slow progress.

I felt like I was sitting with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, one focusing on what the swimmer could do and the other focusing on everything he couldn’t.

I told Laurel about it on the car ride home. “I know which one I want to be,” I said.

Later that night — midnight to be exact — I was up with my father. He had changed mostly out of his pajamas and had his shoes on. That night’s self-donned wardrobe consisted of four layers of shirts, one-and-a-half layers of pants (don’t ask), three socks on one foot, and a single compression stocking on the other.

“Dad,” I complained, “what are you doing?!”

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said.

After getting him changed into his pajamas and back to bed, I lay in my own bed thinking about the swim meet, and how easily I became the person I didn’t want to be. I was frustrated with what my father.

“Lord,” I prayed, “help me appreciate the fact that he can still put on a compression stocking — because that’s hard. He can still tie his shoes. He can still walk. And talk. And feed himself.”

I fell back asleep counting his abilities.

Two hours later he was up again. And I forgot again.

“Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to get some sleep!” By which I meant I need sleep.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he said.

And I remembered again the boy with uncupped hands struggling down the pool. I remembered Sugar-and-spice cheering him on.

Again I prayed. “Thank you, Lord, for my father. Help me help him. Help me give back to him a little of the lifetime of caring he has given to so many. Thank you for the lessons that he still teaches me. And thank you that he’s back to sleep.”

For now, I thought, and smiled.

2:30 AM

“I’m not doing this on purpose, you know,” my father says to me.

It’s 2:30 AM. I’m pointing at his clock, the new one we got that tells the time and the time of day. Above the 2:30 AM the word “PREDAWN” appears.

My father presses his lips together and narrows his eyes. He looks like the emoji with horizontal lines for both eyes and mouth. Exasperated. Frustrated.

I’m not sure what that emoji is supposed to represent. I’m terrible at reading emojis. My children try to teach me.

“I can’t believe you used the eye-roll emoji,” one of them said to me after I, guess what, used the eye-roll emoji. I thought it was more of a shruggy-I-dunno face. But what do I know?

“You use that smiley-face?” another one asked once. I use the basic smiley — no teeth, no open mouth, just a little upward-curved line.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“I read that as a snarky-teenager-if-you-say-so face,” she said.

Sigh. I dunno.

But at 2:30 in the morning, I’m not thinking about emojis. I’m thinking about redirecting.

I have a baby monitor in my room so I can hear him when he gets up. He often gets up to use the bathroom and then goes back to bed uneventfully. And I go back to sleep, because I haven’t left the warmth of my bed.

Some nights, though, I don’t hear the squeak of the hospital bed as he climbs back in. Instead I hear running water in the bathroom and know he’s planning to shave. Or I hear the creak of dresser drawers being opened followed by the sound of the hanging drawer pull as it drops down and hits the brass plate. I know then that he’s getting dressed and that it’s time to redirect.

I climb out of bed, turn the monitor off, and head downstairs. The overhead light is on in his room, its bright rays extending under the door. Sometimes, when I open the door, I find him in the bathroom. Sometimes, he’s at his dresser. Sometimes, he’s just standing in the middle of his room, like he doesn’t know what to do next.

“I’m not doing this on purpose,” he says to me, and it breaks my heart. He knows that what he’s doing isn’t right, but he also doesn’t know what the right thing to do is.

“Look at the clock, Dad. It’s 2:30 AM. You’re supposed to be sleeping.”

“I know that,” he says.

“Can I help you get back into bed?” I ask.

“You want me to go back to bed?” he asks. What I’m saying connects, but it’s like using a corroded battery where the connection isn’t a connection because of yuck that’s in the way.

“Yes,” I reply. “You need to sleep.”

And by that I mean that I need to sleep.

But it’s too late for me.

I help him get back into bed, then go upstairs to my bed, turning the monitor back on before I climb in. The silence on the monitor tells me that he’s back to sleep. My husband’s deep breathing tells me that he’s sleeping, too.

It’s 3 AM now.

I stare at the ceiling for an hour, wishing sleep would return to me.

When it doesn’t, I climb out of bed to begin my day.