Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘father’

old fashioned canned food

Once a multi-talented woman, Alzheimer's took away Irene's ability to do any of the things she was so talented at, including canning food.

My mother, as I have mentioned before, was a multi-talented woman.  I doubt there was anything she couldn’t do once she set her mind to it.  I recall as a little girl someone had given us their old couch shortly after she and Dad moved the family to San Francisco in the middle of The Great Depression.  You might say the springs of its life had sprung.  Not only the springs in the foundation, but the springs in the three cushions bulged in every which direction – no foam rubber back then.  For a family who was without a couch, however, it was better than no couch, but its sorry-looking condition didn’t last long.

She went to the library and found herself a book about upholstery.  Little by little she tore the whole thing apart, bought some twine, fabric and several boxes of carpet tacks.  Following directions from the book it was only a few weeks before she had all of the springs retied, cushions and sofa sewed and/or tacked in place with a new fabric. Abracadabra!  We had a “new” chesterfield, as a sofa was often referred to way back then.  That’s just a sampling of all the things she continually did to make our rented “flat” a home.

In the kitchen she bottled a goodly supply of fruit, made jam and stored staples to make sure we would always have something to eat during an emergency, such as my dad being without work.  Mama also read books on nutrition.  A well-balanced meal with the necessary food groups became part of the way she cooked and served my father and her three growing daughters.  She had saved her spare nickels and dimes to purchase a set of waterless cookware to preserve each vitamin found in the food she bought.  Every so often we pleaded for fried potatoes like Aunt Esther made, but Mama was firm in her knowledge that potatoes cooked with the skins – and steamed — in three tablespoons of water were better for us that those occasional greasy fried potatoes at Aunt Esther’s house.   I know we didn’t appreciate her chosen, healthy lifestyle, but I’m also certain we were the beneficiaries of her good, nourishing meals.

Life, though, wasn’t all steamed potatoes and veggies, she made delicious bread and the very best Parker House rolls in the world.  No matter how hard we girls tried as adults nothing we made compared to them.  With no convenience foods and no boxed cake mixes, any desserts Mama made were from scratch.  Furthermore, the fruit from the jars in the dead of winter was a treat in itself.  So was the jam, especially when spread on one of the Parker House rolls.

Even though we resisted, my sisters and I grew up knowing what was nutritious and what wasn’t.  Who could have believed grocery markets of the future would be flooded with everything one might want packed into a box with more vitamins in the cardboard than in the food inside.  With her example before us and our acquired knowledge of nutrition, we three girls continued with most of her ways when we married and began our families, keeping in mind, always, what was good for us and what wasn’t – perhaps allowing our children a little exposure to what is commonly known as junk food.

When she and dad left San Francisco and retired to “The Little Farm” in Sonoma County, she continued with her healthy lifestyle.  Planting additional fruit trees and a vegetable garden, my mother fashioned them after what she had known in her youth and young adulthood. Back then, everything was organic, grown in nature’s own way, but no one had put a name on it.  Her modern-day garden was cared for in the same way long before it became the popular thing to do and had a special name, and summer visits from Mom and Dad always included a few buckets filled with fresh-from-the-garden produce.

They had a wonderful 20-plus years of retirement before we realized she was becoming mentally ill, and my father  recognized the need to move closer to us.  “She just doesn’t do much of anything anymore,” he sadly explained, adding that he was having problems with his own health. A few years prior she had forgotten about the fruit trees, overgrown bushes and her garden, spending her time reading, something which had always been one of her great pleasures.  It appeared she had lost all motivation in continuing with so many of the other joys where she had been so capable.  I visited one day while she was still making an effort to do some of her favorite things.  On the work table in her sewing room I found a small platform rocking chair.  She had managed to remove the old covering getting it down to the bare frame.  I commented about her work and asked to see the new fabric she was planning to use, hoping to spark an interest.  Dismally, she asked if I would take it home.  “I don’t know how to do this anymore.” she stated.  “Can you finish it?   Being my mother’s daughter, I could, and I did, covering it with a pale blue fabric dotted with small pink flowers.  It was perfect next to our fireplace.

When they were ready to move I spent a week with them packing.  My niece, Dee, who lived in the area, came to help.   Stimulated by our activity, Mama bustled around with a bit of excitement much like her old self.  She supervised in her own way and actually made a few good decisions about what we should pack and what we could toss.  I was pleased with her participation.

When meal time approached Mama said she would prepare dinner for us if we wanted to keep on working.  Dee and I agreed and she scurried off to the kitchen.  Several minutes later she returned with a spoon filled with cooked ground beef for us to taste.  “What else do you think this needs?” she asked.  We both took a taste as Mama looked on.  Had I not know the ground beef was fresh I believe I would have declined dinner.  Neither Dee nor I could figure out what she had added to make it taste so awful. In response to her question I suggested, “Tomato sauce, add a can of tomato sauce.”  “Maybe a bit more salt,” advised Dee.  Off she went, back to the kitchen.  Dee and I looked at one another as she asked, “How can anyone make hamburger taste so bad?”

It wasn’t long before she called us to dinner.  Dad wolfed it down with no comment.  Perhaps he was getting used to her loss in creating quality cuisine.  Dee and I stared at our plates filled with non-descript food.  Looking around, we spotted a few empty cans and some trimmings from vegetables, so we felt assured dinner wasn’t going to do us in.  Good, it was not, but we muddled through.  Besides, we were hungry.

Alzheimer’s does that to people.  No matter how capable Mama had been, AD was taking it all away.  Over the next year or so her decline picked up speed, and when my father no longer could identify his food he took over the cooking.  “I’ve done it before and I can do it again,” he stated in a matter-of-fact manner.  Eventually, it became necessary to hire a caregiver to be with them for the remainder of their lives.  Besides caring for Mama and her child-like ways, Jayne also did the cooking.

I think often of Mama and the example she set, of the security we felt during the dark times of the Depression as she made sure there was food in her larder for us and comforts in our home.  Perhaps it wasn’t what we thought we wanted, and at times it probably lacked in abundance, but we felt secure.  We weren’t really aware of their struggle – only in retrospect did we grasp the fear and uncertainty they must have felt.  With adult understanding, we were – and are — filled with the utmost admiration.

I am grateful so much of her has stayed with me.  I know that when I pull out my jars, lids and cold-pack canner as the apricots ripen on our tree or when I stir a kettle filled with bubbling applesauce, Mama is not far away – watching and pleased that her daughters have learned about being self-reliant, about making do with what we have, or doing without.

There seems to be an ebb and flow with economics in this life which, at times, renders us to be more frugal than we might want to be.  No one knew better than Mama how to deal with difficult times, and she handed that legacy down to her three girls. Recently, I have noticed the small, blue platform rocker next to my fireplace is getting rather shabby.  Years have slipped by since I brought the bare frame home at Mama’s request.  Perhaps instead of replacing it, though, I think I’ll just recover it – again — using the knowledge and skills that I not only inherited — but observed and learned from my wise and talented mother.

Read Full Post »

car keys

Giving up the driving privledge can be difficult for some Alzheimers' patients.

Rose had stopped driving on her own volition relying on Nick’s ability to see that the two of them got to whatever destination was necessary. She made a list of needed groceries and told him he could do the shopping as well.  Forgetting to refer to the list, his selections alone should have tipped us off that he wasn’t thinking sensibly.  More often than not he came home with what he believed to be essentials: peanut butter, bananas, milk, bread and Sweetie Pies.  The pies, consisting of a large 3” cookie covered with a marshmallow of equal size and held together by dipping the treat in chocolate, had become his favorite dessert.  Sealed in individual packets of cellophane, his choice came 12 to a box, and he always bought two boxes.

That all changed when his driver’s license came up for renewal.  He didn’t do well with the written test, but the examiner believed his reading skills might be off, so the test was given orally.  He passed, but for his age he was required to take the mandatory driving test.  He didn’t think it a problem, but asked Ken to go with him.  Alone in the car with the examiner, he made a poor choice resulting in a near accident.  “Stop the car,” bellowed the examiner.  Shaken amidst honking horns and cursing drivers, the examiner drove Nick back to the DMV where Ken was told, “Your father is not capable of driving a car.”  Nick was outraged, insisting he had been tricked.  “The examiner was prejudiced against me,” he lamented, “because I’m old.”  His anger, however, didn’t last more than a week or so when he found that I would drive him and Rose anywhere they needed to go.

It all came together about the same time: their growing list of needs and my availability.  Nick still liked to do the shopping, but with me by his side, we bought a lot more “real” food which Rose continued to cook, but he still was allowed his Sweetie Pies.

Later, at another time and place I found that relieving my mother, Irene, of her driver’s license posed no problem.  Like Rose she just stopped driving, allowing the license to expire.  Dad was the driver and had been for years.  Always a one-car family, he took it to work and she used San Francisco’s public transportation or walked during those mid-life-plus years. She applied for a license only when they moved to Northern California’s Sonoma County.

It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how or had never driven a car.  In the farmlands of eastern Utah Irene had cranked and bounced their old truck over mountainous, rutted roads without hesitation.  It was city traffic which kept her in the passenger seat.  After their move to a more peaceful landscape, and knowing her capabilities Dad insisted she get her license.  He was not happy about being her chauffeur whenever she wanted to go somewhere.  Country living did not provide the same transportation convenience she had enjoyed in the City.  A little study and a little practice and my mother earned her license, driving herself when my father couldn’t – or wouldn’t.  It was as simple as that, but after several years of additional age and recuperation from a broken hip she decided her continued driving just wasn’t important.

I’ve always been grateful that family, which included me, didn’t have to be the bad guys when it came to taking away the car and the car keys from any of our parents. Even at 88 my father (who had no sign whatsoever of AD) handed me his car keys because my driving both of them answered all of their needs.  Willingly, he surrendered the keys, but not the car.  We always traveled in his big, roomy Chrysler which, next to Mama, was the love of his life.

Sometime before Ken was diagnosed with AD there was a close-call incident for us and three pedestrians which gave me cause to question his driving responsibility and understanding of the laws – let alone common courtesy.  He needed to make a right turn.  We had a green light and so did the three pedestrians who were midway through the cross walk.  Rather than wait until they were safely on the sidewalk, he right-turned in front of them allowing less than three feet of space between them and our car.  They yelled at him, not cursing, but probably wanting to, and his remark was, “Stupid people.”  After I closed my shocked mouth, I reminded him they had the right-of-way.  “I had the green light,” he snapped.  “So did they,” I returned, “and you know the law: The pedestrian ALWAYS has the right-of-way.”  That led to a ridiculous debate about jay walking and all of the other possibilities where the pedestrian was still in the right when it came to an automobile vs. a human being.  We argued until we reached that moment of agreeing to disagree, but his change in attitude was troubling.

The entire episode had surprised me because if anything, Ken was a good, courteous and responsible driver with quick responses.  I suppose in retrospect I should have listed the incident with the other occasional happenings which were proving to be more and more suspicious.  In my heart of hearts I knew that Alzheimer’s disease would be part of our future, and I needed to begin thinking about how he would respond to having his car keys taken away.  Furthermore, how would I manage the dirty deed without making him furious with me?

Actually, the surrender of his keys was very smooth.  Once diagnosis was made, our neurologist said that he must report his findings to the DMV.  He did. Three months later Ken failed the scheduled written test so miserably he was disallowed taking the driver’s test.  Shortly thereafter, we had a follow-through appointment for a personal interview where a final and absolute decision would be made.  Ken was asked many questions; some having to do with driving, others just about the world and life in general.  In conclusion, the DMV examiner stated, “I’m sorry, Sir, but you shouldn’t be driving.  Your license is revoked.”

Ken, the affable person he always was, reached over and shook hands with Mr. Spoiler wishing him a nice day.  Ready to cry, I turned and left the room.  Disappointed and furious at hearing the decision I was angry with everything: the world, the examiner, his biased questioning, the DMV, life and its unfairness, the rainy weather, the negatives that came with getting older and Alzheimer’s – and the list went on.  I suppose much of what I felt was the weight of overwhelming responsibilities which were falling on my shoulders one by one.  Now I had to be the driver in addition to everything else.

Time, they say, is the great healer.  As Ken’s disease became more and more evident, I realized that I was grateful that Mr. Spoiler and the DMV had, once again, been the bad guys in taking away his license and car keys – his privilege to drive — having spared me telling him that he was no longer capable of operating an automobile.  How does one tell their loving husband, or their mother or father who have become victims of these horrible mind diseases that they have become incompetent, useless, bungling, inept, ineffectual, unskilled and are no longer of value?  You don’t.  Of course you don’t.   Instead, you just take possession of the keys and remind these same exemplarily people who were once so amazing, so talented, so wonderful, so needed and so full of life – who had contributed so much to our society — that they are still cherished, respected, and most of all – they are loved.  And you tell them often – even when you believe they no longer understand or hear what you are saying, you keep telling them.

Read Full Post »

Father's Day gift

Most times the best present of all is a visit from a loved one.

“What should I get for Dad?” seems to be one of the most-asked questions falling from the lips of all children whether they are adults or still youngsters.  I recall Ken asking his mother, Rose, what we could get for his father as the arrival of either his birthday, Fathers’ Day or Christmas popped up on the calendar. I wasn’t any better with my dad.  The needs of these two men were next to nothing – minimal – and even minimal was too much.  They had everything they wanted and if they wanted or needed anything else, it seemed they just went out and bought it.  So much for gift ideas!

Nevertheless, we tried, and our children tried.  We might upgrade Dad’s hammer or get a new set of screw drivers, but how often could we do that.    Ken’s father was so funny about gifts.  He loved having us congregate for his birthday and other special occasions or for no occasion at all. But on present days we wanted so much to find something special for him; something he would remember and enjoy – from us.  Nick was an appreciative man, and when he opened our gift we were certain we had selected the perfect item.  Gushing with enthusiasm, he held it up for all to see exclaiming loudly, “Thank you very much.  Thank you very, very much.”  And he was sincere.

He blew out the numerous candles on his cake, and then Rosie served slices of her yummy chocolate confection with ice cream and 7-UP for all.  He was the life of his own party even if they were always the same. 

Lovingly, he would stand at the door as we left expressing how much he appreciated our coming and thanking us over and over for the gifts.  Then he would say to one of the older boys, “Why don’t you take this home?” handing him the after shave lotion which was the gift from Loretta.  To Ken he offered the screw drivers our children brought, and Loretta got the hammer. “Please,” he coaxed, “take these home.”  Now we, the guests, were the ones saying, “Thank you.”  Every gift-giving session with Nick ended in the same way.  “And thank you too,” we all called back relieving him of his just-opened presents. It was useless to object.  No matter what we brought to him, he gave it back to us, or to one of the other guests.  We all just shook our heads and laughed.  I suppose the gift he wanted most, and received, was having his loved ones near: our presence was his present.

My father wasn’t much better although he did keep everything.  He was a handyman so he used the tools, but when they moved and we cleaned the medicine cabinet we tossed the old after shave lotions with the seals unbroken certain the fragrance was long gone – or worse – drastically changed.

Ken was different, truly loving everything given to him.  His interests and collections covered many bases.  A kid at heart, our children and grandchildren knew they could even buy him toys, which the children were allowed to enjoy, but only with Grandpa.  Furthermore, he never gave any of them back.  He was not like his father.  Having once worked for the railroad he was the recipient of a phone shaped like a train locomotive, a miniature train and railroad station which in reality housed a clock announcing the hours with train whistles and a conductor shouting, “All Aboard.”  Grandpa was showered with trains of all gages from “N,” and “HO,” all the way up to match the train he had as a boy. The shelves were lined with miniature cars, trucks, semi cabs with trailers, and heavy equipment.  As a Navy man Ken enjoyed the tiny replicas of WWII battleships, cruisers and PT boats, “The Lone Sailor” figurine standing watch, and to hold up a section of Navy books our son had given him anchor bookends.  One year I asked our daughter-in-law Peggy to finish a hooked rug bearing the Navy seal which Ken had started but never finished — being the great procrastinator.  She did, and he was thrilled as we hung it on the wall. Ken even let everyone know he collected teddy bears.  His home office was the envy of all the grandchildren looking more like a shop filled with collectibles than a serious spot where the man of the house wrote monthly bills and figured his taxes.  After all was said and done I found it to be an endless chore to clean, and a pain and a half to dust, which I did, but only if and when Ken was willing to help.

He also enjoyed new shirts, new wranglers and new ties.  His first gift tie came from our daughter, Julie, when she was 9.  With white-elephant donations through the PTA and a two-day sale, the children were able to purchase affordable gifts for dad come Fathers’ Day.  Selectively, Julie chose the prettiest tie in the whole lot — a wide, hand-painted number sporting a garish Hawaiian sunset that was certain to blind onlookers.  He wore it all day — even to church.  “Nice tie,” commented the brethren – knowingly — “Fathers’ Day gift?”  He nodded and they all smiled.

As Alzheimer’s took his mind, it also took his happy spirit, his joy, and his sense of humor.  His curiosity about a colorfully wrapped package slowly ebbed until there was no longer any interest.  Even the greeting cards that were enclosed are now without meaning – just something to look at and toss aside.  So here it is again: Fathers’ Day, and the question still arises, “What can I get for dad?”

Whether it’s Dad’s Day, Mom’s Day, or Aunt Elaine or Uncle Tony’s birthday, or anyone else’s special day who is stricken with any of the vicious mind diseases the answer is usually the same.  “He/she really doesn’t need anything,” or the caregiver may say, “How ‘bout some new sweat clothes,” realizing the uniforms of the day are looking a bit shabby.  The only real need the victims may be aware of is a need to be fed when they feel hungry.   A plate of cookies brings a sparkle to Ken’s eyes and he might say, “Those are mine, thank you.”  So cookies are always a good gift, or candy; both can be rationed if there is a health problem.

Other than sweets and treats one suggestion as the best of gifts for the afflicted, and the caregiver as well, would be time – your time – time in the form of a visit given by friends and time given by family.  Not a lot, stay for just a little while and then you can leave, but please come again.  From what we, as caregivers observe AD has stripped their memory of everything once held near and dear.  Ken’s face is usually a blank wall as he stares up into the face of a visitor.  Perhaps, he may shake hands – or not.  Typically, there appears to be no recognition, nor does he make much of a comment as he did during the earlier stages of the disease.  At times Ken is chatty, or he may ignore the visitor altogether, or take a nap.  There is no “best” time for a visit.  Most of the day he is unpredictable; at times dozing off while the visitor sits nearby wondering what to say next.

Later, though, after someone has come and gone, and toward the end of the day Ken seems a bit calmer, more pleasant, happier if that’s still possible.  Prehaps deep in his soul the voice of the “stranger” works its way through the slime covering the brain and settles in a place that brings him the most comfort: in his heart where he may feel the reassurance that he is still cared for and loved.

Read Full Post »

treadle sewing machine

Alzheimer's took away even the memory of the sound of a sewing machine for a professional seamstress.

I could barely hear it as my mother asked, “What’s that humming sound?” Pointing in the direction of the bedrooms she continued, “It’s coming from over there.” Having just arrived, I paused, and with neither of us saying a word I too wondered what we were hearing.  Following the hum it led us into a bedroom where there were two large oak dressers, a few chairs and an industrial sewing machine from her years of owning a custom-made-fashions shop with my sister, Janet, in San Francisco.

Mama was fast approaching the middle stage of Alzheimer’s with lots of cognitive loss, but she periodically remembered bits and pieces from her past when something familiar triggered her memory.  Apparently, she had passed by the bedroom earlier that morning, and recognized her sewing machine.  Or perhaps it was the small rip in her slacks which needed to be mended that brought her to what had been so familiar. Sitting down in front of her old “friend,” her hand could have automatically reached over and flipped the switch turning on the motor of her outdated, but still efficient, sewing machine.  With the fickleness of Alzheimer’s her reasoning probably vanished no doubt leaving her to wonder why she was sitting there. Puzzled, she got up and walked away – leaving the motor running.

Conjecture for sure, but AD is often guesswork.  I turned the motor off and pulled the plug from the wall knowing that if she had gone further in an effort to mend her slacks, the speed and power of the needle could have seriously damaged her fingers.  With the humming noise stopped my mother returned to be with my father while I lingered.  Nostalgia swept over me as I rubbed my hand over the solid wood “apron” which housed the “beast” as Janet called the powerful machine.  My thoughts were of Mama and the woman she was other than a parent with three grown daughters – the woman she was before AD had ravaged portions of her brain.

My mother, Irene, had been blessed with endless talents: articulate, funny, inventive, tall and beautiful to look upon and delicate in appearance, but strong in every practical sense.  She also had an artistic flair that touched just about every aspect in the field of fine arts.  Phenomenal designs or a painting quickly took shape as her pencil, charcoal stick or pastels skated across a blank sheet of paper.  These natural talents were gifts with which she had been born, and developing them to their utmost had been one of her goals.

While artistic design was her passion sewing came naturally from a long line of women progenitors; each woman teaching her girls the skills and practicality of stitchery in all of its forms. During the Great Depression, my mother supplemented my father’s sporadic and meager income by sewing custom-made clothes for women of means.  Her skills plus a designer’s genius and fitting expertise caused her customer’s to exclaim, “Irene is a wonder.” My sisters and I agreed, and we all looked forward to our 10th birthday when she would begin teaching us dress making and tailoring on her old treadle Singer sewing machine.  My two older sisters had already reached that pinnacle.

Being the youngest, I could hardly wait to be ten.  With small pieces of fabric from Mama’s scrap box I envisioned what dresses I could make for my dolls once I learned to sew.  Every so often when my mother was out of sight I sat in front of the sewing machine with my pieces of cloth and tried stitching them together.  Watching Mama many times as she worked, I knew the steps about putting the pressure foot in place, giving the wheel a pull and coaxing the treadle to move with my feet.  I could never do it right – the treadle thing –back and forth, back and forth so the pulley turned the wheel in the right direction.  I failed each time leaving the threads from the needle and bobbin tangled or broken.  Quietly, I would slip away never telling anyone of my attempt, but I’m sure Mama knew I was the culprit who kept messing up the threads.  I wondered if I would ever master the foot rhythm.

Months before my 10th birthday I came home from school to find Mama removing the contents from the sewing machine’s drawers.  I sensed it was more than just cleaning and asked what she was doing.  “We’re getting a new sewing machine,” she happily informed me, “a new electric Singer.”  With instant tears spilling from my eyes I plopped down in a nearby chair. Feeling betrayed, I could not share in her joy, and tears came because she was trading in the old treadle for some new-fangled electric machine that disappeared into a desk.  I just knew I would never be allowed to touch – much less sew on it until …. I couldn’t even imagine when.  My dolls would be forever naked.  “Now I’ll never learn how to sew,” I sniveled.

Placing the drawer back into its slot, Mama rose from her chair and knelt down beside me.  “Now, what makes you believe that?” she asked.  “The new sewing machine is too good for me to use.   I might break it,” I whimpered.  “How would you like to be the very first one to sew something on the new ‘Singer?’” Mama offered.  My tears turned off like an empty cloud.  “Could I – really?” I questioned, “even if I’m only nine,” not sure of what I was hearing.  “You will be the first,” she promised – and I was.

With my hand still resting on the “beast” I remembered my wedding dress designed and sewn by my mother, and then there was my graduation suit of light-weight pink wool featuring a peplumed jacket trimmed with black cording on the collar, cuffs and the small strip of belting attached at the waist back.  It was exquisite, and when I wore it I was stunning.  My mother had taught me to sew nearly as skillfully as she, but for special garments there was nothing like Irene’s original creations.

Standing there musing I wondered when she had stopped being that fabulous, creative person I had known.  What had been her last sewing project and how long since she had painted a meadow filled with blossoming apple trees or the ocean’s waves pounding the shore?  When was it that Alzheimer’s had stilled her artistic fingers, devouring the brain cells which fed her talents?  What subtle variations about his wife had my father noticed that brought about his decision to change their comfortable life?

My parents had moved from their wonderful retirement home in the country outside of Sebastopol, California in the late 1980s when Dad admitted they could no longer be so far from family because of Mama’s declining mental health.  Finding a house just a few short blocks from me and Ken was the perfect solution to their needs.  My father had always said, “I don’t want to live with you, just near you in our own home.”  With help a few minutes away he was able to care for most of her needs, or call us in an emergency.  Nevertheless, I didn’t wait for a call. Instead I stopped by at least once a day, knowing how lonely he was, and to make sure all was well.  Important too – I doubt my father would have heard the beast’s motor running with his poor hearing.

I was glad to be there for them, and within the next few years it would be more of the little things, the gradual changes made by Alzheimer’s insatiable appetite that Dad and I would observe in caring for my mother. Irene would regress from the woman we fondly remembered, spinning down through the years of her life eventually becoming a sweet-natured child who spent afternoons with her mother who — she insisted — was me.

Read Full Post »

lost shoe

Like a long lost shoe, Alzheimer's patients often feel lonely, lost and abandoned.

“Good grief,” confessed my neighbor Ruth many years ago,  “I forgot Laurie at Mayfair’s.”  It was a few days after the fact that she mustered up enough courage to tell me she had forgotten her child while shopping at one of those supermarkets where there was a built-in Kiddie Korral, a special fenced-in corner of the store where you could leave your children for a few minutes, withour worry, while picking up groceries.  More often than not Ruth went shopping by herself, leaving the younger children with her oldest daughter, who was more than capable of keeping an eye on her younger siblings.  All of the little ones had enjoyed a few stays in the Korral, and if they caught mom heading out to buy groceries, they pleaded to go along.

“Oh please,” Laurie had begged, “Can I come with you – pleeeeease?”  How could Ruth resist such coaxing?   Laurie climbed into the car with her mother and off they went, the little girl being more excited about her visit to the Kiddie Korral than spending some one-on-one time with her mother.  Absorbed in the picture books and surrounding toys,  Laurie didn’t notice the time passing, nor did she notice her mother push the grocery cart past the fun-filled corner and out through the open glass doors of the supermarket.  Nor did Ruth remember she had brought one of her children.

“Where’s Laurie?” asked Jackie, helping her mother carry in the groceries. “Did you forget her at the store?” she joked.  That was the moment of truth.  Ruth leaped into the car and raced back to Mayfair’s. There was Laurie still looking at pictures from the pile of selected books next to her chair.  “Time to go,” said Ruth, relieved to find the little girl safe and sound just where she had left her.  For Laurie there was no trauma and no feeling she had been forgotten, much less abandoned, nor would she be scarred for life from the experience. However, Ruth wasn’t alone is losing a child.

One year we lost our three-year-old son, Kevin, at the county fair.  He didn’t want to be in the stroller, so I pushed his empty vehicle while he held his father’s hand.  Feeling independent, he soon insisted on walking alone, and when his sisters, Ken and I turned to go into an exhibit, Kevin kept going straight.  Within seconds we realized he was gone, and he was – disappeared from sight – and so quickly.  After minutes of searching and not finding any trace of him in the crowd, terrible visions began entering our minds.  Immediately we found the sheriff’s office and reported our missing son. “Wait here,” the deputy suggested, “We’ll find him.”

It wasn’t like Ruth leaving Laurie, she was pretty certain she knew where to find her little girl. We did not.  Our child was lost in a world filled with strangers – and they could be dangerous strangers.  My little boy was alone and frightened somewhere out there.  We were near panic.  It seemed like forever before another deputy appeared before us holding our crying and frightened child, his precious face streaked with smudged tears, his small arms stretching forward to me as we both sobbed; Kevin’s tears from being lost, my tears because he was found and safe in my arms.  “No need for positive identification,” said the sergeant in charge. “Looks like she’s the mother.”

Ruth, nor I, nor Ken, were bad parents, neither were the number of other friends we knew who had misplaced, lost or forgotten one of their children during those years of transition from toddler to an independent human being, especially in a large family. Fortunately, all of our lost children were found.

One couple we know drove 50 miles before they realized their small son was not in Uncle John’s car, but back at the dam.  The return trip was a little frantic, but Steven was safe  in the capable care of the park rangers even though he probably felt lost, abandoned and fearful.  Another family outing involving multiple cars arrived home, hours away from their excursion site, before they realized one little boy was still at the aquarium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  A quick phone call and Uncle Gene who lived in the City came to his rescue, once again finding the lost child safe with aquarium staff.

Those desperate emotions are always within us and rise to the surface when we feel threatened; possibly in preparation for our own defense.   I suppose they belong to the “Fear Family,” often made worse when fear itself is mixed with believing you are alone and lost.  However, with a diseased mind, those same fears of emptiness and desperation can be a constant in addition to other instinctive feelings that bring unimagined misery to the mindless.  Is it any wonder they can rage, become angry and combative?  Occasionally, I look into Ken’s eyes and see fear and entrapment.  I understand how frightening life can be for AD victims when there is no reasoning power to comfort their own confused state.  Reassurance, however, can come from someone else or something: a familiar voice, a caring touch, pleasant music, soft words, company and many other soothing actions or words.

A few weeks ago I walked through our living room on my way to do a few quick errands.  Ken was sitting comfortably in a chair with Ben beside him.

“Where are you going,” Ken asked.

“I have to go to the bank, I’ll be back soon.”

“No, you won’t” he retorted.

Once again I pled my case, “I’ll be right back – really I will.”

“You’re just saying that,” he insisted.  “You won’t ever come back.”

I looked into his handsome face.  Written clearly was that look of abandonment.  Incredible sadness filled his eyes and demeanor.   I felt astonished to read him so well.  I could see the disappointment, the sorrow, the acceptance of my leaving forever as I moved toward the door.  He was convinced that I wouldn’t be coming back.  I was leaving him alone – abandoning him – in his immediate need for comfort and assurance.

“I can do this tomorrow,” I said to Ben, removing my coat and putting my purse aside.  Ken said nothing more as I sat down, but his face showed relief.  Did he know me?  Was he having a Ken moment?  I don’t know the answers.  What I do know is that for a brief period of time he wanted me nearby.  He wanted that feeling of security — to be with someone familiar — even vaguely familiar.  In much the same way as my three-year-old son had buried his wet face in my shoulder, his arms desperately clinging to my neck Ken too wanted to feel safe, knowing that he was found.  This I could give him with my presence.  Even if it lasted for only a little while, I wanted him to be comforted in that moment knowing he had not been abandoned.

Read Full Post »

Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Last week my friend Bob came for a visit.  We hadn’t seen him and his wife, Julie, since they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the summer of 2006.  She died on Thanksgiving Day last year.  For me, it still seems unreal and difficult to grasp.  After all, it was only yesterday – or so it seems — that she and I chatted on the phone just like old times, the gaps in time and distance vanishing as soon as we began talking.

Julie and I met while working in the 22-story office building on the corner of Bush and Sansome Streets in San Francisco which was better known long before the 1950s and early 60s as The Standard Oil Building of California (now Chevron).  The two of us were employed by the mega oil company and assigned to Central Steno, located in a gigantic room taking up most of the 2nd floor.  It was filled with copy machines, typists, stenographers, Dictaphone operators, Varatypists and all sorts of other specialists in the clerical department.

Despite Central Steno’s enormity and scattered personal, Julie and I bumped into one another at the morning coffee wagon and became instant friends.  She, newly arrived from Santa Barbara, and I, a local, could have been sisters. We looked alike, we thought alike and often dressed in similar outfits, except her waist was at least three inches smaller than mine requiring alterations on all of her clothes. However, we did have one other major difference: Julie was single and I was married to Ken with an adorable little girl, Deborah, and number two peeking up over the horizon in the not-too-distant future.

We lunched together, shopped together, and talked about her latest date or current beau — none of whom seemed to be Mr. Right.  If her weekend was uneventful I invited her to spend it with me and Ken at our new home across the bay from the city.  When number two baby arrived we named the little girl Julie after my new best friend.

The following summer Julie met Bob.  It was July 1st and they were married September 8th.  A whirlwind courtship and two months after meeting they tied the proverbial knot. I was her matron of honor.  And the skeptics said it wouldn’t last – only 54 years.  Bob was career Air Force and they traveled all over the world adding a girl and then a boy to their family tree. Meanwhile, she was the officer’s good wife, but still found time to study and develop her natural artistic talents — all in addition to being the best mom in the world to their growing children.

We kept in touch.  Then we didn’t, then we did, and then we didn’t, but we did manage to hold on to that thin golden thread which tied our busy lives together with short notes and cards sent every once in a while. That’s how good friendships are, and that’s where we were when my phone rang nearly five years ago.  It was Julie and she asked once again if I would stand up for her as she and Bob renewed their wedding vows in celebration of a half century of marriage.  Bob’s best man and his wife would be in attendance as well as lots of friends and family.  I reminded Julie of Ken’s Alzheimer’s, but told her I would make every effort, keeping her updated through email.

In spite of Washington state’s reputation for rain, the weather that summer’s day was fabulous:  blue skies and balmy breezes.  Ken’s proclivity to be social was at its best as he made friendly conversations with the other guests minus the stumbling blocks often associated with AD.

Bob and Julie wrote their own vows for the occasion, and this time she said she wasn’t going to repeat that “obey” thing.  They pledged, we clapped and smiled in approval, and they kissed – sealing another 50 years– the fates willing. No longer the whirlwind courtship love, it was now a comfortable love, the warm old-slippers kind of love, devoted love — the very best kind of love.  And now Bob was here with me and Ken – remembering — and Julie was gone.

I don’t believe Bob really expected to find Ken as deep into the depths of AD as he is.  “Ken’s gone,” he said after attempting to reintroduce himself and reminisce about some of our early times together.  I agreed, adding that Ken had pretty much forgotten everyone who was near and dear to him.  Occasionally, he will ask if I am his wife, wondering where his mother and father have gone – and his sister Loretta.  His persona seems to be “Buddy,” his mother’s young boy, the name I often use instead of Ken.  I believe it’s in that time zone where he feels most comfortable – if AD victims can ever feel truly comfortable in their confused and frightening world.

“I write about my AD journey with Ken in my blog,” I said to Bob.  “It keeps me sane – writing is therapy for me.”  “That’s why I do this,” he replied.  “I take the celebration of Julie’s life to those people who knew her and have shared in a part of our life together.  This is my therapy.  There are so many people who couldn’t come to the service — so I’m bringing it to them.  Following the funeral there is hardly time to really talk with anyone for any length of time, and then it’s over and they’re gone.  So much is left unspoken.  When I bring the celebration to others, we get to spend time just talking.  It’s been a wonderful experience.”

As Bob and I talked I realized that while we two can empathize with each other and share our grief, the therapy part is a day-to-day process, and healing will be yet another process for both of us to achieve as individuals.  Furthermore, we can’t be forceful or anxious.  It all takes time.

And we talked about the increasing presence of Alzheimer’s everywhere.  Bob’s father was also a victim.  As the oldest son, he was elected to take his father to a care facility when he could no longer be cared for at home.  Life gives us all difficult experiences with which to cope.  I suppose in coping we become stronger. Perhaps adversity is preparing us for what might be heaped upon us at some future date.  Meanwhile, we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Julie had continued with her art and developed a rather impressive following.  Once Bob retired from the Air Force he realized she was serious about her work and told her how he had appreciated her supporting him all through the military.  He would now give her that same support with her chosen career.

Remembering their 15 years on Maui, he said that once, while gazing at a 20’ wall filled with her paintings, he stood in awe of what she was capable of creating.  In his travels he carries CDs of their life and her work.  In addition are four folding panel boards to display either photographs of the work, or small original samplings to share with those he visits.  And he tells of her early life, their serendipity meeting and San Francisco wedding as part of his informal presentation.

Before he left on his journey to Ventura, I told him his continuing celebration of Julie’s life was one of the loveliest gestures I have ever encountered.  Seeing so much of her beautiful art, and hearing stories of their years which Ken and I had missed, I felt privileged our family had been included.  I was also able to tell him a few stories of my own about his wife that he had never heard.

For a few days my focus was taken away from Alzheimer’s (for which I was grateful) and riveted on a long-time friendship and the grieving of a good man who had lost his soul mate.  Seldom do life-long partners depart the planet together which leaves the one remaining alone to mourn the separation. 

With my belief in eternal progression I am always comforted that we will meet again and be reunited with loved ones.  It’s like Samuel Butler wrote a very long time ago when people traveled to the “Continent” by way of the old luxury steamer ships, “Death is only a larger kind of going abroad.”  If you consider that, dying really isn’t goodbye – merely “Bon Voyage.”

Read Full Post »

For a generation or more we have spent Christmas Eve with our daughter  Julie and her family.   In addition to her brothers and sister, with their families, there has been other in-laws, friends, cousins and anyone else who needed a place to be for the Holiday.   In the past Julie’s house has been noisy, crowded and filled with merriment.  However, as children grow up, get married, move away and are caught up in careers or have other new family obligations, our traditions are in a state of flux.   

Last night there were only five little ones under 10 plus  an adorable baby, Rylie Ann, moving from the crawling stage to the standing stage, and two young adult grandchildren.  Their contemporaries were 800 miles away visiting their parents, brothers, sisters and extended family.  It was that distant house filled with the sounds of Christmas we had been so accustomed to hearing: the very joyful sound of lots of children and young people. 

Ken’s Christmas benchmark was noticable this year.  He has become somewhat frail looking, and moves like an older man with faltering footsteps and waving arms rather than the robust mature person he was before AD.   As we approached the steps to Julie’s house I noticed he was fearful of venturing onto the stone-laid walk.  Even though he was supported by two of his sons, he felt along the stones with his feet wanting to be certain they were solid.  Once inside the house, I noticed he was much more subdued during the evening — almost like a shy, clinging child in new surroundings.   It’s times like this when I say he is like Velco. 

Later on, Ken felt more at ease and decided to get a drink of water in the kitchen.  Carefully, he meandered his way between the glass coffee table and the couch.  He did well, but on his return trip, he took a quick right turn at the middle of the clear table top.  (He has macular degeneration in his right eye and his poor vision is now even worse.)  Blindsided and in the dim lights of Christmas he thought the way was clear.   Suddenly, he was falling right onto the glass and into the sofa on the opposite side.  I could see him grimace as he went down.  Immediately, I worried that he might have injured his artificial hip.  The men who were close by leaped to his assistance, but being the stubborn, independent man he is Ken wouldn’t allow the help.  Instead he struggled to right himself.  Although the glass is about three quarters of an inch in thickness we were all concerned it might be broken.  If it wasn’t, the possibility of more pressure on its tilted position  against the base might be the final insult causing it to break and really do him injury.   Still refusing help, he managed to climb over the glass and pull himself erect.  The men picked up the top placing it back onto the supporting base.  No damage and no harm done except for Ken’s shin bone, which was pretty well skinned.

Within a few minutes he had forgotten the accident and settled down next to me.  All evening long he asked,  “Whose house is this?”  Repeatedly I answered, “Julie’s house.”  Not once, but it seemed like a hundred times.    Comparing benchmarks, I could see considerable change during the past 365 days.

We had dinner, opened gifts, exchanged small talk and everyone went home.  As soon as I entered the house I slipped him two Tylenol PM tablets.  He had been sleepy in the car, but by the time we got inside took the pills and brushed his teeth, I could sense him slipping into one of his other characters.  It could have been 12-year-old Buddy, who guards the house like a stockade with the Indians circling.   It was midnight and I was so ready for sleep, but wanted to wrap a few more packages.  He began pacing, rattling the outside doors to make sure they were locked.  After three or four rounds, I lost my temper and he ordered me to leave.  When he does this lately, I lock myself in the computer room and let him pound on the door while I busy myself with “whatever.”    He finally settled down and I wrapped my gifts.   It was 3:00 a.m.

When I woke on Christmas morning, it was 10:00 a.m.   Feeling somewhat refreshed, I quickly got up, dressed and spread out a small morning buffet to munch on when Keith, Sabina, granddaughter Jessica, and Kenney and Peggy came.   I wondered if I would feel up to driving to Antioch with the gifts for Sean and Lani and family.  That decision would come later.  The late-morning visit with two of our sons, their wives and Jessica was lovely.  I was glad they came.  Jess is such a sweetheart and had made me several gifts. 

Approaching 3:00, my morning family had other places to go and friends to see.  A little late for us to be leaving for Sean’s, but if we left right then, opened the gifts and had a bite to eat, we could be home by 9:00.   In addition, we needed to be home when Tim (Julie’s husband) brought their three dogs for a half week’s stay.  They were off to Atlanta to visit their son Pete, ReNea and their four-year-old son, Mason.

It’s been about three  years since we lost our last dog.  Even though I miss not having an animal in the house, I don’t miss having to clean up the piles of hair that seem to float in the air landing on and under everything.  Nor do I miss the compulsory yard duty clean-up brought about by their presence.   It will be interesting to see how Ken does with three spunky dogs.  Meanwhile, Happy Holidays.

Read Full Post »