Premature

That little pat on the back that I was giving myself was premature. Way premature.

I had gone to the gym this morning to work out. I love working out. Love it, love it, love it. I wish I could get there every day.

For me, exercise is such a key part of my well-being. I feel more optimistic after I exercise. Big ideas come to me while I exercise. My body craves healthy food on the days I exercise. It’s an all-around win-win-win.

So this morning I exercised.

In the course of elevating my heart rate, oscillating ropes, swinging the kettlebell, and dripping with sweat, I started thinking about caregiving and how far I’ve come on this journey. I used to get so frustrated with my mother — but she had a bitter sharpness that my father doesn’t have. She would harp at me, insisting on something that wasn’t, or lash out at one of my children for something they didn’t do. She could be a challenge.

My father, on the other hand, laughs at the darnedest things. He’s happy and content. He works on his puzzles, reads his books, and listens to his music. People stop to visit him. He gets a bowl of vanilla ice cream every day. He watches the Red Sox play nearly every night. It’s a good life, I think.

So I was working out and thinking about all this. I was thinking, I’ve got a good handle on this caregiving thing. I think I’m doing all right.

I patted myself on the back and began mentally writing a blog post of encouragement for other caregivers. I wanted to tell them that they’ll have good days, maybe even a bunch of them in a row.

When I got to the house, Dad was coming out the door with the dandelion-stabbing tool (surely, there’s a better name for it) because he wanted to start getting after the dandelions. I asked him to stay on level ground and checked to make sure he was wearing his LifeLine in case he fell.

As I headed inside, almost as an after-thought, he said, “It was the strangest thing, but I found all this money today. I left it on the table for you.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked.

“Here and there,” he said, waving vaguely with hands to indicate that it was in a variety of places like the dandelions in the yard.

Puzzled, I went to investigate.

My wallet was sitting out on the kitchen table. I looked inside and it was mostly empty. My heart sank.

I found all that money he had been talking about, stuffed like a bookmark into a book. It was a twenty and three fives — $35 that had been in my wallet.

I looked in the garbage and found gift cards, receipts, coupons, a note from Mary, and other papers that only an hour before had been in my wallet.

I grabbed the crumpled papers and marched out to my father who was still standing on the deck holding the dandelion-stabber and looking at the dandelions.

“Did you find the money?” he asked innocently.

I exploded. “That was the money in my wallet,” I said. “And these –” I held out the papers I had pulled from the garbage — “these are mine.”

“They aren’t anything important,” he said.

“Not to you, but to me they are,” I said, far more loudly than I should.

And the argument went on far longer than it should have.

I knew in my head that he couldn’t understand, but I was frustrated.

Gone were back-pats. Gone were my words of encouragement. Gone was any goodwill left over from my workout.

I went in the house and fixed my green smoothie. From inside the house, I watched as he sat in the grass and stabbed at dandelions. I stabbed at writing words of encouragement and this is what came out.

Fellow caregivers, some days are like that.

But it’s still all so good.

The sun is shining.

The dandelions are smiling (unaware of their fate).

The smoothie was delicious.

And I have $35 safe in my wallet — upstairs now.

V is for Vague and Vivid

Ethiopia

Last night at dinner I asked my father to tell me the turtle story again. I had been a little surprised that my sister had never heard the story and wanted to make sure that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

“Do you remember the story of the turtle eggs when you were a little boy?” I asked.

“What? Oh… I think my father told me to go check the bag in the pantry and there were turtles in it,” he said. Ah — the detail of the pantry. I had forgotten that.

“But,” I persisted, “didn’t some bigger boys give nuts to you and tell you they were turtle eggs?”

“Maybe,” he said vaguely.

“But when we came down that winding road to the Red Sea, I can still see the man’s face,” he said, as if this was a continuation of the turtle story. “You know that road had so many switchbacks — back and forth,” and he drew a zig-zag in the air to show me, “and when we got there, the man had this big smile on face because he was so happy I had arrived and he could go home.”

Switchbacks

This memory crops up quite frequently these days. He remembers vividly the expression on one man’s face at a very specific point in time.

“Where is Mom buried?” he asked, as if something about that memory had reminded him of her. It was the first time he has ever asked me that.

“At the columbarium at the church,” I replied.

Last year for Mother’s Day, I had tried to interest him in bringing flowers to the columbarium. I bought a plant and had Bud drop us off at the cemetery before church so we could pause for a moment with Mom. My father, however, didn’t pause. He just hurried toward the church. I placed the pansies there by myself, feeling a double sadness, and hurried after him.

“I met Elinor when I had that job picking up IV bottles from the nurses’ stations. We got to talking and hit it right off,” he said, continuing last night’s dinner conversation.

I started to ask him to elaborate on it. I wanted to know if he remembered what they talked about (which was hiking).

Arial view of the switchbacks

“But you should have seen that guy’s face,” my father said, changing gears again without notice. “He had the biggest smile because I was there and he could go home.”

I’m never quite sure what I should take from the story.

Is it the switchbacks? My father certainly incorporates switchbacks into many conversation now — not necessarily the story of the switchbacks, but actually switchbacks, where he changes direction so often and so quickly that I can’t always follow.

Or, is it the arrival at a new place and the beginning of a great new adventure?

Or, is it the idea of going home and the great joy that brings?

J is for Jumble

My father was always an orderly man.

His ties were hung neatly on tie racks in his closet, his business affairs neatly filed in folders, his expenses written in neat columns in ledgers. His photographs are labeled, his stamp and coin collections catalogued.

One of the evidences of my mother’s dementia was her setting the table for an army of guests. Non-existent guests. I would get frustrated with it because it meant that I had to put away all the china and silver that she had gotten out. Someone suggested to my sister that we could use the table setting as a bellwether for how she was doing mentally.

For a while, she set the table properly — fork on one side, knife and spoon on the other, dinner plate in the middle. Then one day, it was set like this —
It made no sense.

And I knew that my mother had lost a bit more of herself.

My father’s indicator has been the Daily Jumble.

For years he zipped through it within minutes of sitting down for breakfast. Then it started taking a little longer. Then one day, he wrote the word TOTATO in the answer space.

“Totato” would make perfect sense if he had been reading Andrew Peterson’s  On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. But it’s not a real word, at least not for Daily Jumble purposes. (Correct answer: TATTOO)

My sister and I laughed about it because, truthfully, when we had solved the jumble, we had both seen TOTATO before we saw TATTOO.

Of late, though, my father usually only solves two or three of the words. Occasionally all four. Sometimes with spelling mistakes.

He wrote PICKEL the other day.

Sometimes he makes up words. Like LORAY. When I told him that wasn’t a word, he responded, “Well, it should be!” (Correct answer: ROYAL)

Sometimes he just gets things mixed up.

He sorts through loose change, putting the coins into neat piles, but five quarters in a pile, not four.

And he sorts through pictures, throwing away photographs of people he can’t remember.

His neat and tidy orderliness has become a sieve through which bits and pieces of his life slip every day.

Word jumbles are just a part of it.

F is for Falls

“Tell me about the fall,” the Physician’s Assistant asked as he removed the stitches from my father’s forehead the other day,.

“It’s a long story,” my father deflected.

“I’d like to hear it,” the PA said.

My father launched into his very short story — “I was standing at the foot of my bed and I fell. I’m not sure how or why.”

“Have you had other falls that require stitches?” he asked.

“I’ve never had stitches before,” my father replied.

I don’t know if he’s never had stitches before, but he hasn’t required stitches in recent years.

His last serious fall was early October 2015. I was making my annual pilgrimage to Nashville, and my father could still be home alone at that point. He wears a Lifeline pendant which can detect falls, so when he fell that night, my brother next door was notified.

Peter came down to the house where he found that my father had fallen and hit his head on some bookshelves in his bedroom. My father was quite insistent that he was fine. The ambulance came, checked him out, and he refused to go to the hospital.

“I’m fine,” he said.

But he wasn’t fine.

A few days after I got home, he said, “That fall must have done something to me. Something’s not right.”

I took him to the hospital, and, sure enough, something wasn’t right. He had a subdural hemorrhage that had bled into the ventricles of his brain. Because he hadn’t gone to the hospital, no one had told him to stop taking his Warfarin, a blood thinner, and the bleeding had gone on for nearly a week.

This turned out to be a good-news/bad-news situation. The bad news was that his injury was pretty serious and would take some time to resolve. The good news was that the scans of his brain also revealed another condition called Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH). The NPH may have been present for some time, and had probably caused the instability that led to the fall.

The next summer a neurosurgeon put in a ventriculo-peritoneal shunt that relieved the pressure in his brain by draining fluid into his abdominal cavity. It greatly improved his motor stability.

post-surgical Dad at the butterfly conservatory

Of course, he doesn’t remember any of it now.

When we were in the ER for the latest fall, the nurse asked if he had ever fallen before.

“No,” was the immediate answer.

“Don’t you remember the fall when you hit your head on the bookshelves?” I asked him.

He looked at me blankly. “No, I don’t,” he replied.

It was a lifetime ago. In the intervening two years, my mother had died, he had had the surgery, gone to rehab, and started having a home health aide come to help care for him. He had lost his driving privileges. He couldn’t live alone.

When he fell most recently, I was downstairs to help him immediately. I could see the gash on his forehead.

“We need to take you to the hospital,” I told him.

“No, I’ll be fine,” he said.

Some things don’t change.

Or perhaps they do.

We overrode his wishes and took him to the ER.

 

Celebrate 88

“This is such a great idea,” any number of people said the other day when we hosted a birthday party for my father at the Otesaga.

Not to be morbid, but the idea came from receiving lines at funerals. When my oldest brother died four years ago, I stood in a funeral receiving line for the first time. It felt like everyone had a story to tell about Stewart. I wished he could have heard them. He would have felt so loved.

When my mother died, the same thing happened. Person after person held my hand and told me a story about my mother and how much she meant to them. It gave me comfort to hear, but I wished my mother could have heard the stories too.

When Mr. Hanson, my 7th grade math teacher, died, his funeral was packed. The receiving line stretched out the door of the Vet’s Club and down the street. I wished I could have grasped his hand one last time, looked him in the face, and told him how much I appreciated him.

That’s why I started thinking about a party for my father.

I bounced the idea off my siblings. Before long, I was on the phone with the Otesaga. It had to be a strange call for their event planner.

Me: I’d like to have a birthday party for my father.

Planner: How many people do you expect?

Me: I have no idea.

Planner: I really need a number.

Me: I have no idea.

She worked with me.

I am so thankful for Brooke. She listened and guided and suggested.

For instance, she suggested that we use several adjoining rooms so it never felt crowded. She suggested we set up one room with comfortable seating, so my father could sit on a couch instead of a dining chair. She and her staff put out the decorations we had brought — books and photographs. She was wonderful.

The real quandary was how to get the word out. Friends of Bassett helped SO much. They blasted the invitation to retired physicians, current physicians, administration, and I forget who else. The local churches also helped to spread the word. As I ran into people at the grocery store or the gym or the post office, I invited them. It’s hard to corral a lifetime of people.

Among the first to arrive were two nurses from Dermatology, his last hold-out in his long and varied medical practice. He was delighted when he saw them.

Dermatology represents

From the home health aide who takes care of him,

Doreen and family

To a former CEO of the hospital,

Dr. and Mrs. Streck

To one of his secretaries,


To a little leaguer he had coached,
To family,

Family

More family,

His sister surprised him

And a slew of friends and colleagues, his life was well-represented.

The next day, as he started working his way through all the cards, he asked, “How did all those people know it was my birthday?”

I just smiled.

 

Subscriber of the Day

My youngest brother composed this song when he was a wee lad.

The daily newspaper that my parents read was called the Oneonta Star and one day my little brother burst into this song. It’s much better than my first song which was called “Freckle Face.” Lyrically, my song was more interesting (although a little disturbing), but overall, his was better.

Oneonta — pronounced Oh-nee-on-ta, not, as tourists occasionally say, “Won-on-ta” — is the small city to the south of Cooperstown. 2014 population = 13, 838.

Some of you may be shaking your head saying, “That’s not a city. That’s a town.”

Well, when Cooperstown’s population is only 1,812, Oneonta sure looks like a city.

The Oneonta Star eventually changed into the Daily Star. Old timers still call it the Oneonta Star, just as they still refer to the Price Chopper as the Great American, our local grocery store which changed hands close to 20 years ago.

Old habits die hard.

My middle brother delivers newspapers for the Daily Star. He started when one of my older sons had a paper route and occasionally needed a back-up. My brother enjoyed getting up early and running the paper route. As he told me once, “It’s like getting paid to exercise.” It doesn’t pay terribly well otherwise.

But the people on his route love him. He gives them each a crystal for Christmas and then does little things throughout the year, like occasionally putting stickers on the papers to brighten their days — black cats and pumpkins for Halloween, hearts for Valentine’s Day, fireworks stickers for the 4th of July — you get the idea.

Last year, on my birthday, he put a Happy Birthday sticker on the front page. My father looked at it and said, “I wonder what the devil this is about. It isn’t my birthday.”

“It’s mine,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said.

This year my brother added a bunch of stickers, to make the occasion unmistakable.

But my father didn’t say a word.

Every day, the Daily Star announces the “Subscriber of the Day.” My father comments on it frequently.

“I wonder what you have to do to get that honor,” he asks when he reads it.

The person is usually unknown to us because the Daily Star covers quite a large rural chunk of upstate New York. A few weeks ago one of his friends was named.

“Look,” he said. “John Davis is famous.”

Subscriber-of-the-Day famous.

It’s a strange honor that seems so important to him. He always checks that name above the fold, and then scans the obituary names below the fold — “Just in case my name shows up,” he says, with a morbid humor that I appreciate less and less.

Today’s paper had many celebratory stickers. I wondered at the occasion — until I saw what my brother had surrounded with his stickers — the Subscriber of the Day, my father.

“Did you notice all those stickers?” I asked my father when he sat down to breakfast.

“Peter likes putting stickers on,” he replied.

“These ones are pretty special,” I said. “Look.”

He peered at the newspaper, and peered some more. Suddenly a wide grin spread across his face.

“I’m the subscriber of the day!” he said, fist-pumping the air. “Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah indeed.

I almost burst out singing — “O-ne-on-ta Sta-aa-ar!”

Roots

I need to apologize to Osyth. A few weeks ago in her blog, Half-Baked in Paradise, she wrote about moving. Something about her words broke my heart. Maybe it was this:

My heart felt the leaden weight of sorrow because my safe-place, my home, my warm hug, my protective cloak, call it what you will has gone.

When she posted again, I didn’t even go read it. I couldn’t — I was still grieving over her move. Then she posted again, and I read it. In fact, she started re-blogging a series about her home, and the renovations there, and I binged. She’s posting day by day. Like a glutton, I looked the whole series up and read it, laughing — actually revelling with her — at the great adventure she has been on for some time. (Start here: Coup de Coeur: Part One)

Sorry, Osyth, for not waiting for you to repost them all. I’m just the kind of person who likes to read the end of the book before I read the middle.

Home is something so dear to me. One of my many started-and-discarded blogs had the tagline, “I love where I live.”  And I do. I love upstate New York.  I love Cooperstown. I love the four seasons, the Susquehanna River, Otsego Lake, the trees, the village streets, the country roads, the people, the cows, even the tourists. This is my home — and the thought of living elsewhere is almost unthinkable.

My father keeps asking me what brought me to Cooperstown.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“What made you come here?” he’ll say, as if that clarifies anything.

“Are you asking about why I first moved to Cooperstown?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“We moved here as a family in 1967,” I say. “You took a job at Bassett Hospital as the head of their General Services department.”

“Yes, that’s right,” he replies, every time, remembering, or acknowledging the plausibility of this story.

“I was a child,” I remind him, “your child. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Where did Bud come from?” my father asks, trying to piece together my family.

We’ve gone through this many times now. I know the questions that are coming, but it’s sad because he has lost a large chunk of my life.

“I took a year off from college and met Bud while I was working at Bassett,” I say.

He nods, but I’m not sure he remembers anything about this.

Long pauses punctuate our conversation.

“Where did you come from?” This question often comes next. It’s another one that needs clarification. I’m sure he’s not asking about the birds and the bees, so I name the army base where I was born.

“How long did you live there?”

My mom and the children she moved with all by herself

“Six weeks,” I tell him. “When I was a baby, Mom loaded me, Stewart, Donabeth, and Peter into a station wagon to join you in Fort Riley.”

Yes, I was 6 weeks old. My oldest brother was 5 years old, my sister not quite 4, and my middle brother only 21 months old. Whenever I asked my mother about my birth and first year of life, all she would say to me was, “That was a hard time.” I’ll bet it was. The legend of a super mom.

“I don’t remember any of that,” my father says, and, of course, he wouldn’t because he was busy working at his fledgling career as an army doctor.

Another long pause. I begin to focus on whatever it was I had been doing before this conversation began.

“So what made you come here?” my father will ask, and we’ll start the whole thing again.

“You did, Dad,” I tell him. “You did.”