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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Turkey

Sometimes the familiar will help Alzheimer's victims glimpse normal

Living with Alzheimer’s there are seldom days, or even periods of time, when life is “normal” – or I should say the way it was – or seeming to be the way it was.  Nevertheless I strive for “normal” as a goal – possibly that we could live our lives in the same manner as we were before AD even if for only a moment.  Certainty the day-to-day care and the fluctuations which occur to the mind and body of anyone with a severe terminal disease are to be expected. Yet a portion of a day can still appear almost like old times.  I suppose it all depends on many factors: influences from within the AD victim and outer influences, noise or silence, visitors or none, cooking aromas, weather, music, sports on TV, the voices of children – any of these may or may not set the stage for mood swings.  Optimistic that Ken would be in a good mood, I set his usual place at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

It’s always a gamble to eat with Ken.  At times he’s been known to reach over to my plate and help himself to something that appeals to him.  Something like those long-ago times when our toddlers were tied with a dish towel into a chair stacked with books when no highchair was available. It was comical to see the adults pulling food and plates out of reach as the small hand stretched at arm’s length to acquire what might satisfy his curiosity as well as his tummy.  So I wondered how Ken would react to a table filled with other people and food in abundance.

I have mentioned before how social Ken had always been, and he responded well yesterday as company arrived.  He seemed more aware, warning the children not to go out a certain door leading to the backyard (which was pretty much ignored) and shaking hands with the adults when a hand was offered.  He even managed a smile or two.  The real test, though, would be dinner, and I did have a back-up plan.  Hopefully I wouldn’t have to use it.

As all of the prepared food and turkey culminated into a feast, Crizaldo and our son Keith guided Ken into the dining room where his chair faced away from the table into the living room where everyone had gathered.  “When dinner is served and his food is in front of him, you two can pick up the chair and turn it around.  That way he won’t be distracted by an empty plate.”

Ken was happy to be part of the group as Keith welcome everyone asking Bob to say a prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing on the food.  As the room became silent I counted my own blessings: years of good living with this man I had married and his prudent financial preparation for our retirement and the possibility of needed care beyond what either of us might be able to do for the other, and for the caring men who provide that additional need.  I am grateful for not only the surrounding family, but for those of our family who had other obligations and those scattered throughout the country; grateful for Liz who, after nearly two years of world travel, had her two feet gripping the ground of New York City and was on her way home.  We are truly blessed.

Following the final “Amen,” Keith and Criz picked up Ken in his chair and planted it directly in front of a plate filled with food.  Without as much as a skip of a heartbeat he picked up his fork and began to eat.  Not the way he often does, barely chewing before another fork full goes into his mouth, but casually, chatting the way he always did before.  I suppose it might be said that old things bring back old ways, and gathered around the dinner table could have triggered a memory from the past. Tuning in every so often it was nice to hear he was engaging as best he could in somewhat of a conversation, and I was pleased.  Nearby the children ate at a smaller table where they were more interested in getting finished and back to playing than they were in Thanksgiving’s bounty.

Another year has passed since we all gathered to celebrate our blessings and offer our thanks to the Almighty.  So as evening approaches I sit quietly and glance around the table at my ever-growing family.  I see Ken at one end of the table and me at the other: matriarch and patriarch of this wonderful group of people, and it all appears incredibly normal — almost like a Norman Rockwell painting.  Today, I am grateful beyond expression and content in these happy, captured moments.

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Or perhaps I’ll call it The Fourteen Days of Christmas.  Today, as I am writing, it is January 6, 2011, a little off my usual schedule because we’ve been celebrating a long Christmas, but now it’s over.  And you know what?  I really like Christmas spread  o  u  t,  taking as much of  December as it needs.

If you are among the generations of through-and-through Americans whose big days are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day your holiday ended at midnight, December 25th, just as ours did before this year.  Craming so many celebrations into such a small space of time, it would seem the date was more important than the day.  After weeks, and even months of preparation Christmas is over in a flash, and now it’s gone for another year. The jolly old elf, his reindeer, and all of his helpers are taking a well-deserved rest, and that includes moms and dads everywhere.

However, if you don’t live in the USA customs for the celebration of the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ can be different, and are actually more in keeping with the authentic event than all the frantic madness we impose upon ourselves. 

Don’t think I’m a Scrooge grumbling “Bah-Humbug” through this wonderful season of merriment and joy. I’m not.  I love Christmas, the carols, the cards, the parties, the well wishes and even the shopping.  And more; before AD, Ken and I so looked forward to driving through the neighborhoods seeing the decorated homes, malls and the beautiful displays on the grounds of churches everywhere, especially the live nativity scenes where we could let our imaginations go and become part of what occurred more than 2,000 years ago: the birth of a tiny baby whose life and teachings have changed the world.   Yes, Christmas is a beautiful and unique celebration – and different – as we all know elsewhere in the world.

My family and friends who have close ties to Mexico tell me that it is January 5, when the children leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts – not their stockings, but their shoes – and gifts not coming from our white-bearded friend – but from the Three Wise Men who arrive on January 6.  Think about it; isn’t the tradition of gift giving at Christmastime based on The Three Wise Men who traveled from afar bringing the Christ Child gold, frankincense and myrrh as they worshipped the New Born King?

Leading up to the 24th and 25th of December there are posadas and celebrations where loved ones reenact the blessed event, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being a more reverent time.  But no matter what the custom or tradition, it is a joyous celebration for Christians everywhere.

This year I have found wonderful flexibility in December.  Perhaps taking a bit of the customs from south of the border.  Singing The Twelve Days Of Christmas, while being a delightful carol, sounds a little much for me.  Who needs all of those maids amilking and noisy French horns?  But 14 days of Christmas with some light festivities, and then a few days of rest in between parties is perfect.  When Ken was well, it was tradition to spend Christmas Eve at daughter Julie’s house, Christmas morning at our house, and Christmas afternoon at grandson Sean’s house.  It seemed we spent as much time in the car as we did with family.

Ken no longer travels well, so I declined all invitations to leave our home.  “Then we’ll come to your house,” said Sean.  “What evening would be good?”  I gave him a date and beginning the Tuesday before Christmas we dined and relaxed with those who could attend, and then opened gifts with no rush in having to get the kids home and in bed, or dropping someone off at the next stop.  A few days later we did it all over again with other members of our family.

“How joyful it has been to spread out the Holiday,” I emailed our cousin, Penny, whose family has also multiplied over the years, living in various parts of Oregon.    She agreed, saying  they also spread the Holiday over several days, commenting on how well it has worked for their family.   Christmas Day can be any day we choose.

If any of these changes mattered to Ken it’s highly unlikely.   He no longer has any curiousity or interest in brightly wrapped gifts, decorations, or colorful lights, and has no understanding of the holiday.  But always a social person, he still seems to enjoy having people around him, and especially the little ones.  Our last Christmas celebration was Monday evening with daughter Julie, husband Tim; son John and wife Marisol, and their two little ones, Joaquin and Maya.  The eight of us represented four generations, and when Ken looked at four-year-old Maya, seeing her beautiful brown eyes and dark hair, he exclaimed, “What a little doll.”

With no memory of who she is or where she fits into this vast puzzle we call family, Alzheimer’s has not taken away his appreciation of the beauty of children, and for that I am grateful. 

So after all is said and done, the gifts opened, hugs and kisses for everyone, and the last guest drove out of sight what did we get for Christmas?  The best gift of all:  Family and friends – in and out of our home — bringing their presents and presence, giving us their gifts of time and themselves.  Who could ask or want for anything more?

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Ken and I are part of the generation born during The Great Depression, and for years our title was just that:

white plate

A white plate helps distracted patients with Alzheimer's

Depression Kids.  I suppose we still are, just as “Baby Boomers” will always be “Boomers.”

During our early years, a good percentage of the population was out of work, and the economy then was in much worse condition that it is today. If one was lucky enough to have a job it was often sporadic; when there was work you worked, when the work ran out the boss sent you home with pay for the time put in: no sick leave, no paid vacation, no unemployment, and no medical.  Benefits?  There were no benefits.  Well, I guess there was one: having a job was the benefit.

Housewives watched every penny, nickel and dime striving to make ends meet.  Axioms, still of great worth, grew out of the struggle.  “Waste not, want not,” was my grandmother’s favorite, and she often quoted scripture when it was applicable.  “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was another favorite of probably every housewife in the neighborhood.  Time and time again she put those words to a test transforming the good part of a torn shirt into “new” underwear for one of the younger boys using her sewing skills and an old treadle sewing machine.  Uppermost, however, was food; the mother of the house gave strict orders, “Clean your plate.”  The moms of America didn’t have to add the guilt trip, “People throughout the world are starving,” because people in America were also starving.  Waste was not allowed.

I suppose when you grow up understanding value, especially the value of food when you’re hungry, the words “clean your plate” can almost be redundant.  So it’s understandable that life-long habits are hard to suppress.  I recall my father breaking off a piece of bread, dropping it into the last puddle of gravy on his plate.  Stabbing the bread with his fork he mopped the plate clean before surrendering it to be washed.

Nor did my father stand alone in the practice.  Just about every red-blooded American did the same.  A clean plate was a show of gratitude and appreciation.

Many of us would have to plead guilty of this “offense” especially when taking one more biscuit from Thanksgiving’s basket and sopping up a little more giblet gravy.  While the Emily Posts of the world frown on the practice, especially in public, we do, on occasion sneak by with mopping the plate at home.  However, when I see Ken stretching his own boyhood habits (distorted by AD) it’s a little different.  Bread is cut up as if it were a piece of meat and if it’s gone or not recognized he uses a cut carrot, an apple slice or a couple of green beans to swab his plate, which he does at every meal.

I’ve watched how the rest of his eating habits have changed during the years of battling Alzheimer’s.  When there were only two of us (after the kids had grown and gone) presentation became more important than when we all sat down together eating family style.  With just Ken and me the dinner plates were filled at the stove and served as if we were eating out.  Now days, I still arrange the food in a pictorial manner, but I notice that before long he has stirred everything together making dinner a gooey goulash, although he does appreciate what I cook and often states, “This is good.”  The nice presentation has vanished, but the goulash is still served on a china plate.

Years ago I read a story (true or not I do not know) about a family who had taken in the wife’s mother, who might have been an Alzheimer’s victim.  The story did not tell, only that she was a crazy old thing who would occasionally break her dish after she had eaten.  In frustration, the daughter bought her mother a wooden bowl.  Each meal was served in the bowl: accidents still happened, but there were no more broken plates.

Eventually, the old woman died and the daughter tossed the wooden bowl into the garbage.  The young granddaughter, who for years had observed her grandmother eating from the assigned utensil, retrieved the bowl from the trash. “Why did you bring that old thing back into the house?” the mother asked.  Thoughtfully, the young girl answered, “I need to save it for when you get old.”

No matter how inconvenient it might be I believe AD victims need to have the same respect as the rest of us.  I felt sad about the old woman having to eat from a wooden bowl, and also felt as if the younger mother deserved her own daughter’s conclusion, which might have been, “When you get old you’re not worth much, not even a real plate.”

Don’t get me wrong; at a picnic or any other appropriate place, or if it’s your chosen lifestyle paper or plastic is just fine.  Just don’t use a cheap substitute as “punishment,” or because that particular “someone” isn’t worth the best of what’s available.

Often AD patients clean their plates so thoroughly they want to include in their meal the patterns under the glaze.  I’ve watched Ken do this time and time again.  My mother did it as well during her years with Alzheimer’s.

One evening at a friend’s home, as we completed an pre-Christmas dinner, Ken kept scraping at the Christmas tree design in the center of his plate.  “Don’t do that,” pleaded our hostess, “It will ruin the dish.”  Yet Ken continued “cleaning his plate.”  Other than the irritating sound, reminding me of finger nails on a chalk board, it would have been difficult to inflict permanent damage on the Christmas ware before Ken gave up and relinquished his plate, which, by the way, was clean as a whistle.

“Next time he comes,” my hostess said firmly, “he’ll be eating off plastic.”  Sure enough, on the next visit, where she had prepared a lovely pre-New Year’s dinner, my friend had a very special Holiday plate just for him.  While the rest of us ate off the good china, he ate from a festive plate made of very heavy paper with a plastic coating – a throwaway.  It was nice, but to me it was still paper.

For some time I have noticed that he often tries to include the flowers or scattered leaves adorning our dishes as part of his meal even after the plate is thoroughly clean and all food is gone.  I doubt that scraping the edge of a fork or spoon over the surface does any more damage to the glaze than does a steak knife cutting meat.  However, the finger-nail-chalk-board noise was getting to me.  Problem solved: I bought some plain white china plates for us to use with absolutely no decoration — no flowers, leaves and definitely no Christmas trees.  Even at lunch he gets his sandwich on one of the new plates, and if it gets broken that’s okay.  We have more.  He uses what I use whether it’s china, paper or plastic – whatever is appropriate.  But I do draw the line; absolutely no wooden bowls.

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A block print by Irene Weeks, the mother of Ann Romick who also suffered from Alzheimer's

Last year, a week or so before Christmas, I flipped through our church magazine stopping at an article titled, “Be The Answer To Someone’s Prayer.”  Captivated by the thought I read the article through.

As a woman of faith and active in my church I have always striven to do those requests asked of me, but never have I through of my acts as being an answer to someone’s prayer.  I believe in prayer, that prayers are answered, and yes, I believe “angels” help many people.  My favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but “me” as an answer to a prayer – it’s never even been a consideration.  So my answer would have to be – I’m not sure.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I believe I am, for the most part, a charitable person donating to many worthy causes, dropping money into the Salvation Army’s kettle, helping others, and I loved all of the old TV angel programs often to the point of shedding a few tears at the happy endings.  I have also been known to hand money to a guy carrying a gas can who asks for help in getting his car filled and the family back home.  “It’s a scam, Mom,” I was repeatedly told by any one of my adult sons.  “That’s all right,” I have answered.  “If it is a scam, then he has a problem, but I did the right thing in helping.”  Is that an answer to someone’s prayer – again I’m not sure – or am I a sucker for a scam?

I also received an email about a hospice physician living in Colorado who was forced out of a rainy evening’s traffic into a gas station because his car kept stalling. (I’m not sure if the writer was a man or woman as it was written in first person, and it really doesn’t matter.  However, for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to the person as male.)

Somewhat exasperated he looked around only to find himself stalled near a very troubled woman who appeared to have fallen down next to a gas pump.  Asking if she needed help, the tearful, haggard woman said she didn’t want her children to see her cry.  Our Good Samaritan noticed the older car filled with stuff and three kids in the back – one in a car seat.  Summing up the situation he took his credit card and sliced it through the machine nearest her gas pump saying, “I’m the answer to your prayer.”  She looked at him with surprise, and he followed with, “You were praying, weren’t you?”

As the car filled he went next door to a McDonald’s coming back with two large bags of food for the kids and a cup of coffee for her.  The kids tore into the burgers and fries like young wolves.  The woman shared her story of being abandoned by a worthless boy friend, and was now hoping to make a new start by returning home to her parents with whom she had been estranged for more than five years. They were looking forward to her and the children with open arms, and offered to help until she got back on her feet.

Feeling much better, she thanked her benefactor, and then asked, “What are you – some kind of angel?”  “No,” he chuckled.  “This time of year the angels have a lot to do, so sometimes God has to use regular people.”

He was the answer to her prayers.  And by the way, when he tried to start his car the motor turned over immediately and purred like a kitten.

Christmas: the time of year when we begin to think about being kinder, more charitable, more aware of mankind and their problems, and thoughtfully wonder, “How can I help others?”  And then we get busy writing cards, shopping, wrapping, getting presents ready for mailing so loved ones will receive their packages on time.  In a whirlwind of doing good, we often find excuses for not taking the time to think of doing “more good.”  Such was the case one blustery evening a week before Christmas last year.

It was near dusk, but light enough outside to see the wind blowing the never-ending rain of leaves from our trees when the door bell rang.  Before me stood a man in his 30s holding a rake; he spoke with an accent, but his English was good.  “May I remove the leaves from your lawn for a donation?” he asked.  My thoughts were not kind. Ken was in a bad mood, and I was busy trying to prepare dinner, needing to get back into the kitchen before something burned.  “Oh bother” I thought, “I just raked them yesterday, and I’m busy, and my husband has Alzheimer’s, and I need to see if he’s getting into something, and you’re here to rake leaves?  Why now?”

I all but said, “No thank you,” just to have him gone, and then I remembered the magazine article and the email tale of the physician and the down-trodden woman – whether it was fact or fiction – it didn’t matter — it was a beautiful story.  Before I could speak my uncaring thoughts, sending him away with his rake, a kinder, gentler thought raced into my mind.  “Perhaps you can be an answer to his prayer.”

“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead. There’s a recycle can next to the house.  Put the leaves in that.”  Suddenly, I felt better, less harried – less annoyed – a little more in tune with the season.

From my purse I took two matching bills placing each in a front pocket of my jeans.  If he did a sloppy job I would give him one, I decided.  For a good job he’d get both.  Returning to the kitchen it wasn’t long before the bell rang once again.  It was darker now, but still with enough light to see the lawn was perfectly clear except for the still-fluttering leaves falling to the ground.  With both hands I reached into my pockets and handed him the two bills.  “Good job,” I added.  “Thank you,” he said with a broad smile, “and have a Merry Christmas.”

In the realm of Sister Teresa’s life it certainly wasn’t a big deal, but maybe he didn’t need a big deal.  Perhaps he needed just a few more dollars – for whatever.  Was I an answer to his prayer?  I don’t know, but I felt good.

This year of 2010 has not been my favorite year.  There has been illness and death among our friends and family.  Ken’s Alzheimer’s has continued to plateau downward making his care increasing difficult, and the automobile accident in February which nearly took my life are not experiences I would like to repeat  Yet from the ashes of sadness and disaster I have found blessings.  And yes, I must acknowledge the abundant answers to my prayers through – not only God’s angels – but through the human angels He has sent to answer not only my prayers, but the prayers of those near and dear to me.

What better example is there about being the answer to the prayers of others than words from the Lord Himself as he reminds his disciples in the Bible (King James) —  Matthew 25:35-40 when he says, “For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; Naked and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'”

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We were on a date, Ken and I, just getting to know one another.  We had been to the zoo in San Francisco.  While walking back to his car we noticed a man in the parking lot with a handful of tiny American Flags – paper – the size of a postage stamp – glued, possibly, to a tooth pick.  Wearing a military cap, and one of the picks stuck into the button hole of his lapel, he didn’t have to say he was a veteran.  We just knew.  It was also Memorial Day and the veteran was soliciting donations for the VFW or some other worthy veterans’ group.  Ken stopped, took out his wallet and handed the man a dollar bill.  In return my date accepted one of the tiny American flags and, with the accompanying straight pin, I placed it on his shirt collar.  Mind you, when we were dating, a dollar bill was worth a dollar – 100 pennies — and could have paid for both of us at the neighborhood movie.  I was impressed.  My boy friend was generous. 

My husband – who happens to be the same guy who took me to the zoo – has always been generous; not only with money, but with his time and energy.  If someone needed help he was the first to step forward.  Saturdays were often lost at home because Ken was helping a friend or a neighbor do some job that needed one more pair of hands.  So the chores I had lined up for “Honey” to do were postponed until another Saturday.  He had an insatiable desire to help others – to be of service – to “Pay It Forward” long before anyone ever heard of the book made into a movie.

 Several years ago, when Ken was better and we enjoyed life together, we saw the movie titled “Pay It Forward.”  If you didn’t see it the story was about a young boy who believed in doing good.  No one taught him, no one told him to be kind, to be caring, and to think of others.  The gift of charity came with his packaging – a spiritual gift.  It was one of those feel-good movies with a sad ending, which possibly sealed his message of paying it forward on the hearts of all who saw it.

          

The boy’s outline for doing good lay in three steps:  Watch for opportunities to help someone, do something nice for someone you don’t know, and spread the word.  When a surprised recipient asked “Why are you doing this?” the answer was to pay it forward, and the recipient could continue the good work by helping three other people — instantly making the world a better place – and then those three people could help three more people until everyone everywhere understood about paying it forward.

 

Surprisingly, I found on line that through the book and the movie a foundation was created to educate others about changing the world through good deeds, and November 17 is “Pay It Forward Day.”  I am also impressed at how contagious it becomes.

 

My friend Jack who is on Facebook wrote on his page, “I stopped by the grocery store and just staked out the people waiting in line.  I noticed an elderly lady, and as she neared the check out I politely asked if I could pay for her groceries?  ‘Yes!’ she answered, shedding a tear, as did I, and I paid.

 

“When she was through the line I explained how ‘Paying It Forward’ works.  Thrilled with the whole concept, she left saying that she was going home and bake cookies for the ladies at the bank.”

 

Jack later told me he went back to the store the morning after he had paid for the older woman’s groceries.  “The same cashier was working and said she could not stop telling people what I did, which inspired them to follow the example.  She, for instance, paid the dinner bill for an elderly couple at a Mexican restaurant.  The response from their waiter, the manager and the couple was unbelievable.”

 

Comments from other friends quickly filled Jack’s page, and with his permission, some posts are printed below:

 

“Wanted to follow up on the ‘Pay It Forward’ idea, but since I missed the actual day I decided to make it a quasi ‘random acts of kindness’ instead.  I was at IHOP w/my Mr. & son, and noticed there was a woman eating by herself.  When my waitress gave me my check, I asked for the gal’s also.  The waitress thought it was great.  I told her it was because of my friend Jack and paying it forward.  Jack, you are an absolute doll! Someone who understands true charity and practices it.  LOVE and admire your huge and expansive heart.  I am grateful to be your friend. You are amazing, Jack!  Now, that’s the Holiday spirit!”

 

 “Awwww Jack.  I love it. I’m going to do the same……”

 

“I try to do this on a regular basis!  It’s amazing how good it makes you feel to do something unexpected for others.”

 

“I’ve done that on the Bay Bridge – paid for the person behind me as I drive through.”

 

“You made me cry, Jack, you are too kind.  God bless you.”

 

“What a beautiful thing you did Jack.  Brought tears to my eyes.  I will certainly begin to pay it forward.”

 

“You topped me, Jack.  Near Halloween some bigger kids saw my ‘Trick or Treat’ candy in my cart and said, ‘I want to come to your house.’  They were buying a bag of cookies, and I grabbed their bag, handed it to the cashier for her to ring up on my bill, and tossed it back saying, ‘Happy Halloween.’  They were shocked and said, ‘Thank you, ma’am!’ Kidding, I said, ‘I’m going to take those back.  How about Miss.’ I love surprising people like that.”

 

“I give candy canes to the toll takers on the bridge.”

 

“Jack, I haven’t seen you or spoken with you in a decade or more.  When I read your post, memories of you came flooding back!  This is SO YOU!  I will put this on top of my TO DO list for tomorrow.  Thanks for reminding us to take the time to pay it forward.”

 

 If Alzheimer’s had not been in his way I know Ken would be doing good deeds for other people the year round not even remembering the movie.  After all, he was known to many as the nicest guy in the world. However, I know he is not the only one with that title, especially as we enter into this wonderful season of hoped-for peace and goodwill to all mankind.

 

It’s good to know that there are so many nice people out there doing thoughtful things for others, and many more who just need to be reminded. The only thing I will challenge about the November date is that it’s too close to Christmas. Christmas: when most everyone is kind-hearted and thinking of others.  Perhaps they should have made “Pay It Forward Day” sometime in mid-January – after the Holidays are over; when it’s cold and full of winter, when the lights are gone and the Christmas trees are waiting at the curb for the recycling truck, and our thoughts are about just getting home where it’s warm and inviting; when we might be inclined to fall back into thinking mostly of our own comfort — ourselves. January: when it can be dark and gloomy, and the storms of nature and life keep pounding at our door.  That’s when we need to do and say, “Pay It Forward and Keep It Going.”  Keep it going into the brightness of spring, the lazy days of summer, and into the colorful charm of autumn as Jack Frost reminds us once again of another winter, and a year filled with generosity. May we all strive to make the entire year glow with the Christ-like goodness we all have deep within our hearts.

 

Meanwhile, as you are finishing that last bit of Christmas shopping, don’t forget to pay a little something forward.

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Is it Thanksgiving that kicks off the Holiday Season, or is it Halloween?  While the “they” forces are debating the question I’ll take a quick sentimental journey back to my own childhood remembering Christmas decorations lurking on the high shelves of our local “5 and 10 Cents” stores waiting for the Halloween masks and costumes to disappear.  No different from merchants of today, they couldn’t wait to push an early start for Santa’s helpers to swing into action.  My sister Janet and I used to ask one another, “What happened to Thanksgiving?”  Even at 9 and 12 we were aware that every holiday had its own tradition, and it wasn’t Christmas, but Turkey Day that arrived in November.   In school we had learned of the pilgrims sharing their harvest with the local Indians and giving thanks to the Almighty.  Nice beginning.   America’s first Thanksgiving has long since been tradition, and we continue to celebrate as the first gusts of cold air remind us that winter (and Christmas) is, indeed, on its way, but first let’s have our day of gratitude.

When we were children both Ken and I spent Thanksgiving day with family — not friends — family; unless the friends joined us for dinner.  As youngsters we were yet to meet, but family traditions were pretty much the same.  Dinner was either at home, or everyone gathered at someone else’s house; that house belonging to anyone on the long list of the aunts and uncles.

After we were married we continued to share with one another the Thanksgiving traditions of our parents, aunts and uncles. It was a little more difficult because we now had his family and my family from which to choose.  It was also noticed that our cousins were  growing up, getting married and having children, as were we.   With so many invitations and so many relatives, the older generation soon realized that traditions needed to change — not disappear — just become less rigid,  less cumbersome, evolving — even morphing — into a family solidarity of  love  and genuine affection for one another — which they did —  all the while respecting the new chosen Thanksgiving traditions of the younger generation.

We settled on Grandmother’s house – either one.  When Ken’s parents, Rose and Nick, began to have health problems we brought our brood, their brood and Rose and Nick, health permitting, to the home of my parents; a country setting located in Northern California’s Sonoma County.  For years my personal tradition was to arrive on Monday to help my mother prepare; making pies, cooking ahead and cleaning – getting ready for family on Turkey Day.

It was during dinner that last year when I noticed my mother seemed to be talking endlessly about not much of anything.  Her dinner plate was untouched as she droned on and on until my father said, “Irene will you stop talking and eat your dinner.”   She paused, took a few bites and began her filibuster once again.  I had noticed her being inattentive the previous three days, losing concentration and not listening.   Later, much later, we realized she was slipping away into Alzheimer’s.

Nick and Rose had already journeyed into the disease.  It was more than 35 years ago when doctors weren’t even certain what was wrong;  “Just old age,” was the usual diagnosis, “or senility – maybe dementia.”  The medical community groped and we did too.  Uncertain about what to do, we did the best we knew finally placing them in full care facilities when we could no longer cope.

My parents moved back to the Bay Area to be near us so we could supervise and be a part of their care, and life continued.  So did tradition, but once again a new one:  Thanksgiving dinner was at our house just as I had promised Mama.

Years before when I could see my mother was growing tired, not so much because of the work involved with family gatherings, but more of the house being filled with company; the laughter and chatter of adults, the clamor and joyful sounds of children, the cry of a new baby seemed to tire her.  Interesting, no matter how much we might love family and parties there comes a time when a little peace and quiet is better.  My parents were ready for love and devotion to be served in small portions.  I suppose we can compare the often overwhelming joy of family to a lifetime of being stuffed with Thanksgiving dinners – some better than others – but appreciated none the less.  When age finally dictates after such a life-long feast, and we are filled to the brim, all that is wanted is a very thin slice of pumpkin pie.  I understood what she meant; enough was enough.

Nevertheless, she worried about letting go of the reins of her tradition, “If I don’t have the family come to our home, then where would they go?”  Smiling a sad smile I reassured her, “Then they will come to my house, and when I’m not able someone else will have the family Thanksgiving at their home.  There will always be someone to hold it together because family tradition is so precious.  Just let me know when you and dad are ready to let it go.  I’ll be there.”

We took photos after dinner that year: family photos, group photos, candid photos, couples photos and Mom and Dad photos.  With everyone being in a jovial mood, Dad made the announcement, “This is the last Thanksgiving here at the farm.  Mama just isn’t up to it any longer.”  The invisible baton of tradition was handed to me and for all of these years I have held it close.  It has changed, been reshaped, gotten smaller – and larger – depending on the number of guests.  The door of Ken’s and my home swings wide, and there was/is always  room for one more.

Since Ken’s AD Thanksgiving is always the holiday which hangs precariously in limbo until November.  By then I know whether we can do it one more time — or not.  In October we had a small family gathering.  Ken was very good.  Somewhere in his damaged mind there remains a spark of social.  He did so well that evening I decided yes; we would have Thankgiving dinner at our house once again.  Our daughter Julie and her daughter-in-law Marisol did the cooking last year, and what a wonderful gift it was.  This year I will have Ben to help when he isn’t watching Ken, and those coming will all bring a dish of something fabulous for the table, as usual.  What a bounty of blessings abides in my home.  I am forever filled with gratitude.

Last Thanksgiving I wrote about “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevya and his ever-changing tradition and reluctantly accepting what he could not change when his daughters began their own traditions.  I see my battered baton fragmenting as did Tevya’s; bits and pieces scattering in many directions as members of our family move to various locations throughout our great land, but that’s okay even though we will miss them.   I think of tradition as a lighted candle –  like love.  It’s by sharing, giving it away,  allowing it to spread that  it becomes bigger, better and brighter.

Following the “tradition” of Tevya and his humble friends I decided last year to place a metaphoric fiddler on my roof as a reminder that in spite of the adversities we all have, life is good.  As far as I know my fiddler remains.  Listen, once again I do believe I hear the lilting strains of music.

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I thought about it right after Thanksgiving and then asked myself, “Do I want to put up the tree and all of the decorations this year?”  I didn’t bother to answer me, just thinking of getting everything down, all the work, and even wondering what Ken’s reaction would be held little appeal.  He does so much redecorating anyway: magazines in the cookie jar, newspapers tucked neatly in the refrigerator or oven, his hairbrush and comb in the candy dish and rolls of bathroom tissue often line the mantel.  Did I want him pulling off the ornaments and hiding them so our mysterious “someone” wouldn’t steal them, or would he try to fit the small ones in his shirt pocket because they were pretty — or of great value.  Or worse, not remembering its purpose, he might ask me to take the tree down.  Was I going to be Scrooge this year and say, “Bah, Humbug” to so many years of tradition, even though I shop for Christmas all year-long?  If there is no tree, where will I put all of those wrapped gifts?

As I pondered, granddaughter, Katie, asked, “Is there something I can do for you, Grandma?”  I assured her that things were pretty well in order.  Then she suggested, “Can I help you put up the Christmas tree?”  Without hesitation I answered, “That would be lovely.”  Two days later she was up on the ladder handing down boxes of decorations and I was truly happy about her willingness to help.  In my heart of hearts I wasn’t ready to give up on decorating for the Holidays, reminding myself that all of our married life Ken and I always had a Christmas tree.

The first one, of course, was small and simple.  Our budget didn’t stretch far, allowing us only a few lights and a box of ball-shaped ornaments.  Ken’s mom added a few of her’s to our meager beginning.  We debated about a star for the top, and then decided on a glass spire which reminded us of the spires on churches reaching toward Heaven, which we felt, was also a remembrance of what the season is all about.  We could make a few “Stars of Bethlehem” for the branches to fill in around our limited ornaments.

As the number of years began to increase in our marriage, so did children, enriching our lives while keeping our budget in a continued tight rein.  Each year we searched for the best buy on Christmas trees even if it meant buying one a few days before December 25.  We filled the lower branches with unbreakable and paper ornaments which could be touched and held by little ones, and then placed back on the branch following close scrutiny and a few teeth marks as stamps of approval.  Our family dog shared in the joy of Christmas trees by excitedly wagging her tail removing strands of tinsel in a single swoop, and on occasion managed to tangle herself in the lights.  Fortunately, Ken was there to grab the tree while I rescued the dog.  The early years seemed to be set up for a touch of calamity.

One year in search of a tree to fit our Holiday allowance, we spotted a lot advertising, “ALL TREES — $1.50.”  Upon closer examination, they all rivaled Charlie Brown’s pitiful story book tree.  I found one with a beautiful front, but no back.  Ken found its match.  Holding them back to back they made one perfect tree. “We’ll go home and I’ll wire them together,” said Ken.

“Hey, wait a minute, I can’t sell you that for $1.50,” declared the lot manager observing our beautiful, full tree. Where did you find it?  It’s worth at least $10.00.

“You’re right, replied Ken pulling them apart, “it’ll be $3.00 for two trees.”

“Great idea,” exclaimed the main man.  “I’ll match up a bunch and have my lot cleared in no time at all.  Merry Christmas.”

So, for more than a half century we’ve had a Christmas tree; sometimes, depending on how ambitious I felt, we’ve even had two.  This year, the tradition continues; for that I am grateful, and I’m especially grateful for Katie.

To finish decorating I hung wreaths in the windows, laced garlands of fresh evergreens across the mantel, scattered holly, pine cones and then sprinkled it all with tiny white lights.  Legend says Christmas elves hide among the garlands and bring good luck.  With Katie’s help my house is alive with Christmas and the accompanying spirit of happiness and joy.

Ken hasn’t bothered any of it, almost seeming to know it’s symbolic of something.  I remind him often that it’s our Christmas tree even though the word Christmas appears to have little meaning for him.  Yet, the other evening we walked briefly through the neighborhood to look at the lights.  After the rains the air was clear and a bit crisp and as we walked he said, “I haven’t been Christmas shopping.”  “We’ll go next week,” I assured him.

Back home, in front of our own Christmas tree I couldn’t help but think that somewhere, most likely not in his mind, but deep in his heart, perhaps even deeper – in his soul — he knows of Christmas, knows of the babe in a manger bringing hope to mankind of eventually having peace on earth, good will to all men, and the promise of ever-lasting life.

And Tannenbaum, with your overly simplistic English words, “We stand before the Christmas tree, a symbol for the faithful,” welcome once again to our house.

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NORMAL

I strive to be normal among the craziness of living with an Alzheimer’s victim, and keeping normal in mind, I do believe we are doing all right;  times when Ken is gentle and cooperative.  Then there are times when it seems his mind must  go through a session of agitation each day.  The hour varies, usually around dinner time, but it can be later and every so often it is later — much later.  His neurologist has prescribed a tranquilizer for him and it helps.  In addition I give him Tylenol PM to continue his relaxation and hopefully induce sleep, but there are still times when the agitation becomes very intense.   Often he paces around the house, washes clean dishes, polishes the sink, rummages through cabinets and the refrigerator until well past midnight.  No amount of coaxing will bring him to bed.

In my desperation I lure him out of the kitchen, lock the door and tell him he has a few minutes before the electric company turns off the power.  He doesn’t believe me, so I get my flashlight, sneak into the garage and pull two circuit breakers shutting off the bedroom and living room lights.  With the kitchen locked and the lights out, I turn on my flashlight and show him the way into the bedroom.  Not ready for the blackout, he fumbles at all the switches until he is convinced the power is really off.  Within a few minutes he follows my light beam and comes to bed.  Another three minutes of relaxation and he is asleep.  However, when he falls asleep with so much pent-up agitation, he talks all night long.  To get some sleep I turn on the breakers and go to bed elsewhere.

Sleeping in the next room. I was awakened by a thump in the night.  The house was once again dark.  Not even the night lights which I always leave on were working.  With my flashlight in hand, I slipped around the house and found that, indeed, we had no lights.  Looking out into the neighborhood, I saw our grid was off, darkness prevailed.  Checking on Ken, who was still babbling and making no sense, I went back to bed and fell asleep.

Another thump in the night awakened me once again as darkness still prevailed.  In the beam of my flashlight I could see a scattering all over the floor.  The day before Ken had spilled a bowl filled with potpourri.  “What now?” I asked myself.  On further examination I realized the floor was covered with feathers.  Scanning the room I caught the bright green eyes of granddaughter Kristina’s cat, Ghouda.  Crouching low, her paw holding down a mysterious object she glared at me with squinted eyes.  No longer was she the sweet, loving cat that just hours before had nestled demurely on my lap purring contentedly.  Somehow, she was transformed into a miniature jungle beast, wild in her intent to keep what belonged to her.  I reached and she ran behind the bed, prey in her mouth.  No way did I want a dead thing under my bed.  To confuse her I shinned the light in front of her.  It worked; Ghouda turned and ran down the hall into where Ken was sleeping.  Her dead thing was not dead and made its own attempt for freedom.  Ghouda slowed to gain control and I grabbed it, which was, of course, a bird — actually a dove.  How this small, delicate cat caught a bird nearly a fourth her size baffled me, but then I was baffled how she could be so quick as to catch two humming birds and a mouse.  Well, catching the mouse in normal.  But all of these finds, she brought into the house each time I left the sliding glass door open.

With me in possession of her catch, Ghouda was not a happy cat, under foot with my every step — a bird in one hand — the flashlight in the other casting dancing light everywhere as I dodged Ghouda and skulked around the house wondering, now what?  I had taken time to examine the bird.  Ghouda had feasted all down the bird’s back.  No doubt there was  major nerve damage as I felt no response from the wings.  The bird would die, but when.  No longer Ghouda’s prey, it was now my bird.  How could I allow it to suffer?  At 3:00 in the morning what was I going to do?

Spending the first several years of my life on a farm, I observed that life was often brutal.  Farm wives during the Great Depression learned, and did, what had to be done.  It was normal for my mother to select an old hen that had stopped laying eggs from the chicken coop, do what was necessary in a fast and humane way so we could have chicken stew for dinner.  I had watched her many times master the technique of a chopping block and a very sharp hatchet.  Remembering Mama, I knew I had little choice, so being a good farm girl, still working with flashlight, I did what I had to do with what I had available, finally wrapping the lifeless bird in a newspaper for burial the next day.

I am sure that if cameras had been rolling, the entire skulking-flashlight-cat-bird drama would have looked like a Steven King horror film.  When it was all over, I picked up Ghouda, pushed her out through the sliding glass door, closed and locked it, asking myself, “How normal is this?”

I checked again on Ken.  He was fine and still talking.  Crawling back into bed, I couldn’t help but think about Ghouda.  Animal psychologists advise that when a cat brings prey into the house, the animal is bringing gifts.  If Ghouda is planning “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for me, I still have another dove coming and a partridge in a pear tree, to say nothing of the calling birds, all those geese and three French hens.  The sliding glass door will be permanently locked.

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The ghosts, goblins, fairy princesses and super powers have come and gone from our house, leaving no tricks, their bags bulging with treats, meaning another Halloween has passed.  I enjoy the sporadic parade of kids in masquerade (I don’t even mind the older set as long as the candy holds out, their voices already hitting the low notes of “Trick or Treat,” who come later in the evening).  In the past so did Ken.  This year he made no recognition of the holiday when I placed pumpkins on the porch, an immense spider clinging to an equally over-sized web hanging from the roof, and a friendly ghost stuck in my juniper bush which was sprinkled with candy-corn lights.  The house looked festive and inviting and I raced to the door with my caldron of candy at the first ring.

I could see the groups of small fry in costumes were confusing to Ken, who managed to get to the door in front of me offering out a jumbled scolding to a mom and dad with little ones.  I pushed in next to him explaining “Alzheimer’s,” adding, “You didn’t get your candy,” as they all scurried down the walk.  The parents, looking a bit unsettled, shouted over their shoulder, “That’s okay.”   I moved my chair next to the door so it wouldn’t happen again.  I strive to be as “normal” as possible, but as Alzheimer’s gets worse, the problems get bigger and more difficult to manage.

Soon, Granddaughter, Jessica, 10, arrived looking extraordinarily beautiful, glittering petals covering the skirt of her fairy princess costume, a jeweled snood for her hair and wings with which to fly, everything stitched and put together by Sabina, her talented mom.  Jessica, while enjoying the trick and treat part, almost likes being the hostess more, taking over my duties handing out the candy while her parents talked with me and Ken, who soon relaxed, his son’s presence and friendly banter calming him.

As I survey the growing problems as caregiver to a person suffering with Alzheimer’s (not to overlook what caregivers all over the world are experiencing) I think of the little ones out on Halloween night with plastic pumpkins and decorated bags carried to collect their evening’s loot.   As young as they are, they have problems and for them, their problems, when they arrive, loom just as large as our problems are to us, which reminds me of my seven-year-old friend, Robert.

While visiting grandparents in Northern California, he was allowed to pick out his own pumpkin.  Selecting it from the vine, helping load it into the wheel barrel, and then into the car, his Aunt Chrissy declared that she would buy the 95 pound pumpkin for his birthday.  At home, the gift sat proudly on the front porch until some thoughtless and mean-spirited thieves took it while Robert was in school and his mother, Malena, away from the house.  Robert was inconsolable.  He sobbed until Malena thought his heart would break, nor did he understand the ways of the world, or why anyone would take his special gift.  The theft of his Halloween-birthday pumpkin was, to Robert, the biggest problem he had ever encountered, and a problem he was unable to solve.  Our story, however, has a happy ending when a family friend, who is also a police detective talked with Robert, assuring him the “force” would see that his pumpkin was found and returned.  Meanwhile, our detective located an equally large pumpkin and, back in full police uniform, delivered it to Robert’s porch. 

Problems and adversity are a necessary part of our growth in life and they have no age preference, whether they be problems dealing with dirty, rotten scoundrels, age and illness, business problems, problems of the heart, families in crisis, or problems of young marrieds making their budget stretch to cover the mortgage.   Like pain, no one can measure the severity of another’s problems, nor can anyone decide if the problem is big or small — only he to whom the problem belongs is allowed to make that distinction.  One thing, however, is for sure:   no matter what the behemoth which might lumber into our lives, the enormity of it is always lessened by love from those who care: sometimes a stranger, family members, friends or a good and kind police detective.

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