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.

 

 

“I Can Do It”

Darn it, Mary. You weren’t supposed to worm your way into my heart like you did.

I’m not talking about my Mary. Of course my own daughter is firmly entrenched there. I’m talking about nursing home Mary. I-can-do-it Mary. I-love-you Mary.

My father had pointed her out to me a while ago.

“See that woman,” he said, nodding towards her. “She always kisses me.”

Sure enough, she wheeled herself over to my father and took his hand.

“I llllove you,” she had said, carefully pronouncing each word and leaving a space between them.

My father patiently waited while she held his hand and said these words. Then, she started to sing, “I can do it. I can do it.” I think there may have been a few more lyrics, but those were the main ones. On repeat. Accompanied by an elderly fist pump. For emphasis.

Only one hand could fist pump, though. The other was curled in tetany.

“She had a stroke, I think,” my father told me one day after the hand-kissing ritual.

I would see her around when I went to visit my mother.

“I love you,” she always said. I could tell that the letter “L” took special effort on her part.

IMG_6324She hugged and kissed my Mary one day. Over and over. My Mary was gracious and allowed it.

“I can do it,” she always said, too. Sometimes she sang out those words to a tune that only she knew.

Sometimes, though, she would come very near and cradle another person’s face in her hand, her one good hand, look them in the eye, and say, “Say, ‘I can do it.'” She would repeat it until the other person echoed the words. Then she would reward them with “I love you.”

I watched her go through the dining area one day and get every single resident to say “I can do it.” It was remarkable.

IMG_6961Since she sat near my mother, Mary took particular interest in her, especially when my mother didn’t eat well.

“I can do it,” she said. “I love you.”

Last week, I heard Mary say something different. She said, “No.”

The man serving dinner asked if she wanted a meatball sub.

She gave an emphatic no. I didn’t blame her. The food was pathetic.

But she refused all the food she was offered. She indicated that she wanted something in her cup. It was already filled with milk. An aide got out the chocolate syrup.

“NO,” she responded, covering the cup with her hand.

The aide got her a straw and got the same response.

“Ginger ale?”

“NO.”

“Juice?”

“NO.”

Finally, Mary wheeled herself away never getting whatever it was she wanted. It must be so hard to communicate with only the words “I can do it,” “I love you,” and “No.”

And I never heard her say the first two at all that night.

Last night, she sat at the dinner counter looking so sad. Again she refused all food with a much weaker “no” before wheeling herself away. I watched her putter down the hall and wished I could help.

A few minutes later a nurse was calling for help. For Mary. She was in distress. The nurse asked someone to call the ambulance.

“No,” Mary said.

The she spoke progressively louder — “No. NO. NO.

I wanted so badly to hear her say, “I can do it.”

I wanted her to tell somebody, “I love you.”

They got her chart out. “No hospitalization” was noted there. The ambulance was cancelled. Mary was wheeled to her room.

Today I can’t stop thinking about her.

I stood outside her door before we left, but there was too much bustling going on inside, and, really, I don’t know her.

IMG_7089“Happiness dwells in the soul” reads her door. Surely, it dwells in her soul.

You can do it, Mary.

I love you.

 

A New Notepad

It became a theme. A legal pad with only a few pages written upon.

When I found the first few of these on his kitchen table, I laughed and commented to his friend, “I can’t believe he only uses a few pages on each pad.”

“Welcome to my world,” she said with a smile.

As we dug deeper and deeper into the apartment — my brothers, my sister, my father all helping — it became abundantly clear that we had had a minimal understanding of Stewart’s struggles. Layered in with the notepads was a paper trail that told such a sad, sad story.

I daresay that each of us wept, though not collectively. Individually. Privately. Alone. As my family is wont to do. Hearts breaking, not just with the loss of a family member, but with the pain that we uncovered.

While over the years I was busy looking down my nose and saying things like, “I don’t understand why Stewart doesn’t just (fill in the blank),” Stewart was hitting yet another pothole on the bumpy road of his life. And I had no clue. I truly didn’t understand.

“I found a notepad if anyone needs one,” one of my brothers would call out occasionally.

DSC00693

the tip of the iceberg

We would laugh. There was no dearth of notebooks. He had legal pads – yellow and white, composition books, loose leaf paper and three ring binders, ring bound notebooks, blank journals, and paper, just plain white paper.

As I put together a timeline for Stewart’s life — the hidden part that I didn’t know — I began to see a theme. An attempt to put old things behind and start new, followed by a problem, followed by yet another attempt to start new.

This plethora of notepads was a metaphor for his life. A clean notebook. A fresh start. Followed by something I couldn’t always see that made him want to start again.

At the beginning of the weekend, I had driven to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up my sister. On my way, I had passed a man standing along a busy road where there was stop-and-go traffic. He held a battered cardboard sign that read something like, “HOMELESS. VETERAN. PLEASE HELP.” I had watched through my rearview mirror as someone handed him money out the window of their car. My cold hard heart felt nothing for him.

At the end of the weekend, after driving my sister back to the airport, I saw him again. I had no loose change to give him, but I wanted to ask him, “Do you have a sister? Does she live in a little town in a two-story house with her family? Does she know about your gritty exhaust-filled life here by the road?”

Stewart had never reached that point of standing by the road. But I never knew all the struggles he did have.

I wanted to roll down my window and hand that homeless guy a notepad.