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Posts Tagged ‘strangers’

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.

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Curves ahead road sing

Like dangerous curves on a mountain road, no one knows what to expect from Alzheimers.

Do women change dramatically once Alzheimer’s begins its attack on their brain?  Rose and my mother, Irene, remained gentle people, but I don’t believe that’s always the case.  I was told of one woman suffering with AD who seemed to have the strength of a lion.  When she was provoked to anger, the adrenaline really began to pump.  Reaching over the rail of her hospital bed, the distraught victim picked up a nearby chair and hit her attending husband with it.  Quoting my friend Madalyn once again, “They’re all different.”  It would have been interesting to know if that “hearsay” patient was a violent person before AD.  In any event the family and I were grateful that the two mothers in our lives were not combative.  Perhaps I should say there was no occasion to thoroughly test their defenses, and that’s always a good thing.

Both women were cognizant of gratitude, and always managed to say, “Thank you,” for favors and services received.  There was a sweetness which remained as part of their personalities, along with other facets of who they had been before AD.  Their memory was stolen, lost in the shadows making us strangers to them, more than them becoming strangers to us.   The changes taking place so slowly it’s often difficult to recall exactly when they began.

With Rose it was her forgetting that we all noticed first.  Ken would call to ask if she and Dad were going to be home as we were planning to visit.  “Oh, yes,” she answered, “we’ll be home all afternoon. Please come.” When we arrived they were gone.  Rather than drive the 30 miles return trip we waited believing they were probably at the store.  Sure enough, they soon returned with Rose asking why we hadn’t called to let them know we were coming.  We made up some transparent excuse and enjoyed our visit.  She did, however, remember telephone numbers.

“Mom fills my answering machine with one call after another,” Loretta complained as we talked about Rose’s inability to remember her daughter was at work during the day.  When the machine no longer picked up, Rose would call me.  We talked for a while, her asking the same questions with me giving the same answers, and then said goodbye.  Ten minutes later the phone would ring again and, sure enough, it was Rose.  Over and over again, the routine continued until, for my own sanity, I had to let the calls go to the answering machine.  Thirty five years ago, the entire AD experience was new to all of us.  We were all learning, but still in a state of wonder as how to manage and get some constructive advice.

Our daughter, Debbie, came with me one day to visit her grandmother.  Rose was looking at an old photograph album.  With Debbie sitting by her side, Rose looked at the pictures naming her brothers, sisters and friends from the distant past.  Over and over she told the same stories turning the pages back into a circular motion with no beginning and no end.  It was only when Debbie laid the book flat allowing the album to close that brought the book and the stories to a natural end.  Rose read the newspaper the same way —  always stopping and reading aloud an article of interest  (the same ones each time she rotated the paper) over and over until she grew tired and something else sparked her curiosity .  Little by little we began to put the mystery pieces together.

Following Nick’s passing we realized Rose was not only forgetful, she was becoming more and more confused.  The TV dinners we bought had worked for the two of them in the past, but alone she found the boxed meals of no value.   Peeking inside, Rose sampled the contents; the food was tasteless and cold.  She rejected the entire package except for the applesauce, which she ate, leaving the rest of the soggy dinner in the refrigerator, and then placing another frozen meal on the counter to thaw.  Even with my constant visits and Loretta living close by, we realized Rose could no longer live alone.

With my mother, Irene, it was her inability to listen that was one of the first signs she was changing.  She had been a wonderful conversationalist; not only a good talker, but a great listener as well.  Spending time with her, before AD began, was a joyful experience where we could exchange thoughts, ideas and ideals often delving into deep – sometimes controversial subjects – but our exchange was that – an exchange.  It was never an offense/defense debate, merely good conversation between two grown people with each leaving the other a little food for thought to consider until next time. I found the time spent always something to look forward to, but when AD arrived, she stopped listening.  There were no more inspiring tidbits from years of experience for me to take home and no more solid advice.  Her conversations no longer made a point, words became just words and when I spoke up she interrupted as if she were spending time with someone else – or possibly her mind was somewhere else.

Even if no one was with her she often droned on and on without end.  One evening, during dinner, she chattered while the rest of the family ate — her plate nearly untouched.  Finally, my father murmured, “Irene!  Please just be quiet and eat your food.”  She took a few bites then went right back to her endless jabber expressing her rambling thoughts.

Once Alzheimer’s has become an unwelcome part of a family — coming at will – it takes up permanent residence departing only when its victim passes on to a better place.  However, watching for a return visit in other family members becomes second nature to the survivors.  So it was that my heart stopped as Ken and I stood on a grassy knoll where spring-like water gurgled from the ground, and where we had been several times before.  “I have never been here in my entire life,” he claimed after I had mentioned that it looked the same as last time we visited.  I knew then AD had arrived again, its slime once more creeping into our lives like wisps of fog along the shore.  No one’s road signs are the same, personalities become altered, and relationships change.  I go back to my friend Madalyn and her reminding me that Alzheimer’s is different for everyone, yet the end results are, unfortunately,  identical:  No one has ever recovered from the disease.

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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.

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