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Valentine's Day is a celebration of love, remembered or not.

There it was, much to everyone’s excitement, in all of its gaudy decorated glory: the Valentine’s Box sitting proudly in the back of the classroom.  Covered in finger-scalloped crepe paper and shiny hearts of red, white and pink by a few of the teacher’s artistically talented students, its message was clear.  The ordinary, newly transformed cardboard carton became a treasure trove  for valentines: small tokens of affection from one student to another.

At home you either made cards, or your mother bought a couple of books filled with “punch-out” valentines printed on both sides, or a package filled with 36 cards and envelopes for all your little friends – plus one for the teacher.  The day before the 14 of February, as you walked out of the classroom door with your lunchbox, books, papers and coat, the teacher stuck one more printed paper into your outstretched hand which included names of every single boy and girl in the class.  That was her way of saying, “Make sure you give everyone a card.  We don’t want any student to be forgotten.”  That was Valentine’s Day in elementary school.

In high school, they dispensed with such childish frivolities as elaborate Valentine’s Boxes, the day being just another school day, except that everyone was looking forward to the coming Friday night Valentine’s Day dance held in the boy’s gym.  The other exception was the special cards stuffed through the vent slots of certain lockers by handsome young swains and adorable girls, most being part of the popular group — the cliques – the in-kids; then there was everyone else.  That was my group: everyone else.

However, that exclusivity didn’t stop “the-everyone-else group” from having crushes on certain members of the opposite sex with whom no one outside of the cliques had a screaming chance.  For many of us, we took our non-couple status and dared to pursue the unsuspecting hunks on this special day of love by stuffing our own cards through the vent slots of their locker.  

My carefully chosen small token of affection for the dark-haired quarterback, which I signed with a question mark, was a sad-looking street urchin sitting on the curb.  The cover caption read, “Gee, Valentine’s Day ain’t no fun……,” continuing inside with, “…… ‘specially if you don’t got cha one.”  Other than having my English teacher suffer with an acute anxiety attack had I permitted her to read the grammar, the card was a total bust.  Mr. Football Star never knew I existed, and certainly didn’t much care who the unfortunate one might be with a name like question mark.  And that about summed up Valentine’s Day in high school.

Then I grew up, got married and in the doing I acquired my very own permanent and forever Valentine:  Ken.  We continued the romance of Cupid’s work with small tokens of affection on February 14: cards to one another, and cards slipped under everyone’s plate at dinner time when the children were small – and not so small — or a handful of candy hearts in their lunch box – just to say “I love you.” In return, their handmade cards for us were taped to the living room window for all to see.  And then the children grew up, married their own Valentines and moved away leaving just the two of us once again.

One year, while driving in the car I heard a radio DJ announce a Valentine’s Day contest with first prize being a get-away weekend for two at a romantic resort up the coast from San Francisco.  To win, all the contestants had to do was be the maker of the most original Valentine.  “Just mail your entry to the radio station where it will be judged, and the decision of the judges is final.”  “Simple enough, I can do that,” I said to me. Based on a childhood poem about a tin whistle, I cut up some tin cans, fashioned them into a greeting card with my own original “tin” verse and sent it to the radio station.

Did I win the weekend for two at the quaint romantic inn on the coast?  No.  But I did win 3rd prize:  A champagne basket and a dozen long-stemmed red roses would be delivered to my Valentine at his work the Friday before February 14, which was Saturday.

Wouldn’t Ken be pleased to have such a surprise Valentine delivered to his office?  I was excited.  However, on that very Friday, February 13, I received a second call from the radio station telling me they were soooo sorry, but deliveries were limited to San Francisco only.  No deliveries to the East Bay where we lived and Ken worked.  My surprise bubble had been popped. “But you can come over and pick up the basket yourself,” encouraged the DJ, still apologizing.  I agreed that we would do that.

It stormed 24 hours straight on Valentine’s Day.  Nevertheless, we sloshed across the Bay Bridge, meandered up and down Market Street through sheets of torrential rain finally spotting the florist where the prizes were displayed in the window.  Ken pulled into a vacant place next to a flooding curb – into which I could not avoid stepping.  He waited patiently in the car while I dashed through the rain into the shop where I picked up my prize – his small token of affection from me.  “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I crooned, handing him the beautifully filled basket — me and the prize dripping wet.  I’m still not sure if he felt the water-drenched trip was worth the Valentine, but he gave me a quick kiss adding – almost grumbling — “Thank You,” as we began the soggy trip home.

He gave the champagne to our neighbor while I rearranged the long-stemmed roses.  They were lovely on our intimate table in front of the fireplace where I finally surprised him with a cozy dinner for two.

There have been many other days celebrating St. Valentine, other dinners and other roses –with  none quite as memorable.  Never, have I made a more supreme effort to say “I love you” than with that small token of affection.  Nor, do I suppose, has he ever ventured out in such miserable weather just to make me happy while I was striving so hard to make him happy.  A paradox, you might say?  Probably — but such are the Valentine’s Days of devotion to someone you love — and to long-term married life.

Presently, I do believe Cupid’s quiver is empty at our house, but the cute cherub still hangs out here reminding me that small — and large — tokens of affection aren’t always tangible.  Nor do I need to get shot with one of his tiny pointed arrows to remind me that I do love this man.  I don’t love the strangeness that makes him who he is not — stealing him from me —  or the demons who keep him imprisoned within himself.  It’s Ken, who is losing his battle with AD — who has fought so hard for so long, that I love — and such is Valentine’s Day when you live with Alzheimer’s disease.

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My adult children were relieved when they were told that Ken and I would, ultimately, with time, rest and therapy; recover physically following our automobile accident last February.  There were no guarantees, but the prognosis was good. While I remained in intensive care for a week, and then was transferred to our HMO facility, Ken was released from the hospital in five days. Weakened and changed by the accident and his stay, the volunteer wheeled him from the hospital to the waiting car while Debbie took photos of him each step of the way as he struggled from hospital care, to car, to walker and up our driveway.

“I don’t want those pictures all over Face Book,” instructed our son, Keith, who had stepped into the role of CEO for the family during my absence.  Needing to do what needed to be done, he outlined a course of duties, assignments and restrictions for each of our five grown children.  “Dad’s been through enough without having him look less than who he is, less of the man than who he was.  There is no need for the entire world to see him on the Internet as he looks right now.  My father deserves better.”

I doubt if it was the intent of Debbie to display Ken for everyone to see.  She knew her already disease-stricken father had received a double whammy with the accident piling more traumas on top of his already debilitating problems.  The photos were for family.

Not only is Keith a fixer of whatever is broken he is also a fiercely private person: kind, compassionate, sympathetic, and more – empathetic and beyond – as he often steps quietly out of his comfort zone to “lift up” his fellow man.  At the same time, don’t cross him, because he can draw a line in the sand which is not to be crossed or treaded upon.

He also has a motto, “Never put anything in writing unless you don’t care who sees it or reads it.” That goes for photos as well. I agree with him totally.  Many times those feathers – words, photos — which have been cast carelessly into the wind, may at times, manage to flutter back and “bite you in the butt.”

I read a lot about Alzheimer’s from many sources, always looking for how others are managing, new ways and encouragement on how to be a better caregiver – a better person — even though life becomes more and more difficult as the disease progresses.  I also read various blogs about many of the diseases under the Dementia Umbrella.  They all touch my heart, some deeper than others bringing tears to my eyes, especially those who are victims of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s:  Young people, some still in their 30s, who have a lifetime before them with growing families, goals to accomplish and careers to fulfill; their lives — never to reach full realization; their minds — never to reach full potential, and through it all I read of a devoted spouse, adult child or relative, any of whom is often the author of the work.

When I was younger, one of my neighbors called and asked if I could help with her husband.  Stan was in the last stages of cancer and she was caring for him at home.  Other than medical people helping with showers, Val was his sole caregiver except when she might need aid from a friend or neighbor.  “I just need some help turning him,” she explained.  I was glad to be of service.  I could see she was quite capable of caring for him by herself as his disease had ravaged his emaciated body to where nothing was left except skin and bones.  He greeted me, even managed to mumble, “Thank you,” as Val and I carefully shifted him from one side to the other.  Her work with him was such an act of love.   Watching them together, I marveled as she chattered in answer to his bits of labored conversation.  She continued fussing over him, with Stan thanking her profusely for doing for him those things which he could no longer do for himself.

Looking around I noticed the house was immaculate, as always.  I used to tell Ken that Val was so clean she even swept the dust from the dirt in the backyard.  Keeping it all up, she must have been exhausted, yet, never did I hear her complain or tell about some of the dreadfully unpleasant duties her care giving demanded.

Stan was her third husband – the third one she would bury – nursing all of them through their various ills until death led them away and Val was able to pick up the pieces and move on.  Even when she spoke of the first two men in her life and their illnesses, it was without complaint – and no details.  She never mentioned what it was that took each of them only that she was the caregiver.  While Ken and I were filled with admiration, we were much too young to be totally appreciative of her efforts, neither of us having experienced the overwhelming and extensive effort she had performed.  Val chose that those years of caring were to be her memories – unshared – unspoken.

No matter what the illness, there are aspects of caring for the infirmed which are, to say the least, extremely difficult – private – and, perhaps better left unsaid – unwritten.   That’s been my decision whenever I write anything about Ken and our shared journey through this disease; I always ask myself this question, “If I were the one who was ill, would I want him to share each and every facet of my failing health on his blog, with society and all of the neighbors?” My answer would be, “No.  Please — be discrete.”  Discretion is the word I keep in mind.

Someday, after it’s all over, and Ken has been laid to rest – the Lord willing as often the caregiver goes first — I want him remembered for who he was, not for what the monster AD has done to him. Long ago I decided that everything – every labor of this journey – every detail of caregiving — will not be posted on my watch.  As Keith has said, “My father deserves better.”  So does my husband.

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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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