The Last Best Place on Earth

For Dad, it’s Alive Hospice, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

The Nashville facility was full and the admissions nurse so determined that Dad needed to be there that she sent him to the Murfreesboro campus at midnight Friday.

Daddy rests in a large room halfway between the nurse’s desk and a family room containing comfortable chairs, recliners, and couches that flip into beds. There are several family rooms here, one with a dining area in front of a wall full of windows. The light streams in as if on cue.

In Dad’s room, we keep the lights dim. The room is quiet and peaceful; so is Dad.

He only stayed at the skilled nursing facility less than two days. We knew it was not the place for him, and when his kidneys began to fail Friday, the attending nurse practitioner recommended an immediate move.

With the help of the SNF’s social workers and nurses, Alive Hospice Nurse Gail ordered an ambulance for 11:00 P.M. They arrived at 11:45, two youngsters in ball caps reading Medic One.

“I’ll be riding in the back with him,” the smaller one said. “I see his diagnosis here is dementia. Has he ever become combative or kicked or punched a nurse or tech?”

I hesitated. “Yes, he did at the hospital, but that was when he was in complete psychosis. He’s not doing that now.”

“Well, I just wanted to let you know that if that happens….”

Big Guy butted in. “No, no,” he told his sidekick. “If something happens, you just let me know and I’ll pull over to the side of the road and come back there to help you get him calmed. We want to be very soft…soft.”

I could actually imagine a scene like that.

I left before the ambulance. The ramp to I-440 was closed, probably because of a fatal accident earlier in the day, but when I turned around to go the opposite direction, there were cars making left turns onto the interstate so I followed them.

I met Shirley, the night charge nurse, the techs, and the front door security guard. Shirley went over the care plan, medications that they’d be using, and ways they operate. She said the doctor would see me on Saturday. I told her it was already Saturday.

A nurse stuck her head in the room. “I am wondering what is taking that transport so long. Did you leave a long time before they did?”

“No, I was right in front of them, but I bet they got to that closed ramp and found another route.”

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened. They were automatically re-routed.

Dad was awake. Shirley explained what was happening.

“Ernie, we’re going to give you some pain medication and then we’ll give you a bath first thing and get you all freshened up.”

Two techs and two nurses busied themselves over him. He talked to them in slurred speech and from an altered state, but they caught about every third sentence.

“You are a handsome man,” one said. Another asked him about his 72-year marriage. “What’s the secret?” she asked.

“Let each other be free to grow and develop” is what we think we heard. I confirmed that he might have said that.

Then came the washing of the private parts.

“Ernie, we are going to have to wash you down there. Normally, we’d just let you do it, but you have some leftover bm there and we want you to be clean, okay?”

“Ah, you girls just want to look at me,” he said. “All the time.”

We all laughed at him.

“No, we don’t, but I’m going to raise your gown and clean you up and then we’ll put a fresh pad and gown on you.”

He picked up a towel a tech had left beside him. “Then I’m just going to put this over my face,” he said, and hid his whole head from the offending eyes.

We laughed some more, but they got him cleaned up and bundled up in his new bed.

***

Dad now gets a pretty stiff cocktail of haldol, morphine, and a valium-like drug. The dosage is small but repeatable. If he is not calm twenty minutes after the last offering, the nurse starts the routine again, or she slightly increases the morphine.

He lies quiet in the bed most of the time but when the meds start to wear off, he twists, grimaces, and mumbles.

The grandsons and families came to visit yesterday, including Jaxton and Savannah, ages 5 and 3. Neither was upset by Grandpa’s condition. Savvy said hi to him several times, anxious to get an answer from him.  Mom was glad to see the little ones.

I stayed last night. I played music to him and sang to him, hoping something might connect. In the middle of the night, I heard him say, “Diana.” I wasn’t sure of that until I sat up and waited for him to call me again. It’s like what happens when you try to say my name without being able to move the tongue.

“Lie-ah-uh,” it sounds like.

“What, Dad? What do you need?”

He grasps my hand. I kiss him on his old bald head.

“You’re in a really good place,” I tell him.

 

Trying hard to leave.

My daddy hovers, sometimes thrashes, naked, his mind somewhere along an invisible jagged line between his tiny spot of time and space on earth and the ultimate reality of Infinity.

His heart beats so fast sometimes that we fear stroke. Doctors get his heart rate down and his blood pressure goes up. Get the blood pressure down too low and some other wheel falls off the old bus.

He fell in his bedroom sometime very early a week ago Tuesday morning. Before we found him on the floor with a bloody gash on his head,  he’d pulled shirts, belts, and a bootjack from his closet. He told us he’d ducked into a shed for shelter from the rain and realized he’d stepped into some man’s corn crib. Then he couldn’t get out of the field and had crawled through rough straw for miles.

Dad did not get confused because he fell; he fell because he was already confused in the night and hallucinating. We’ve seen a slow slide toward dementia for about three years, but since last Christmas the disease has tracked him like a cat, consistently and with increasing speed. We’ve watched a wretched auto-immune disease rob him of the ability to enjoy food and then to swallow well. His legs grew weaker and weaker, so often he could not stand, even with his walker.

In the emergency room after the fall, he fought with three cats, two black and one black and white, that kept pouncing on the bed. Every time he kicked them off, they came back.  I shooed them away. He re-told the corn crib story with variations and repeated an earlier adventure stripping tobacco with two youngsters who would not talk to him. He was pretty sure they could talk, they just wouldn’t. The ER physician called a hospitalist to provide overnight observation.

Once in the room on the fifth floor tests began, including an ultra-sound on his legs. The technician came in Wednesday morning, made it through the scan of one leg and then Dad refused. He kicked at the machine operator. She dodged and moved the equipment. He kicked some more. When nurses arrived to rescue the tech, he doubled his fists and slapped at them.

I said, “I don’t think you’re going to get that next one.”

She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure of that.”

Within a few hours, the a-fib grew worse and Dad grew so wild and combative I wished for restraints. They came quickly. He did not sleep–not one wink-– for four days.  One night, I bent over to pick something up just under the edge of his bed and even though his hands were tied, he grabbed my hair. It took a few minutes to pry his hand loose.

My dad’s wild mind fashioned a scary story with escalating horror. He gave me the base plot as he dressed me down. I was trying to kill him, leading a band of nurses are my followers. He kept saying that he can’t believe I would do this for money.  “Greed. Evil. You are no daughter of mine.” I stood stark still, as if at attention, stung and disoriented. The words might have attached themselves to a deep sorrow if I hadn’t heard a voice. “This is not your dad.”

For several hours, there was a huge farm machine loose on his farm. We–the nurses, Jade, John, and I–had already destroyed the farm with this wrecker/excavator. We knocked down trees and ran through the shallow creek, breaking the flat limestone into small pieces. We were going to let it run over him, and then it was somehow above him and we were preparing to let it fall to crush him. One hour we were setting him afire. Another time, we were trying to poison him.

He disowned me, then started yelling again. I tried to slip a dry mouth lozenge in his mouth but I wasn’t quick enough. He can’t bite since he has no teeth but he clamped his jaws shut, turtle tight. Then he said to the air on his left, “Jameson, look at your mother. This is the kind of mama you have.” Jameson is my grandson, not my grandson, and he is safe at home in his own bed.

Dad got back to serious yelling. “Where is Mom [my mother]? She’s the only good person around here.”

The student nurse asked, “Does he like music?”

“Yes!” I said. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that. I should have brought in a player. There’s no music channel on the TV.”

Wait, I thought. I could stream from my laptop.

I grabbed my almost-dead HP from my bag and began the frustrating process of hooking up to the hospital free-for-visitors wi-fi. It’s a finicky network. I spent twenty minutes and then gave up.

Dad changed the venue. “Help! Come on, we’re down here in the bottom by the creek. They’re trying to crucify us all.”

The last time he had mentioned crucifixion, the nurses were attaching restraints. I watched him pull at the cords and thought of rodeos and roped calves. I remembered a pig bound and hung for slaughter at my grandfather’s farm, and of holding my dog Murphy for an injection.

That night, I left him praying. The words were plain and the sentences cohesive. “Lord, thank you for this life I’ve been given. And if you want me to die now, I’ll come. I ask you to forgive Diana and all these evil persons who are doing this to me. They know not what they do. Take care of their little children.” I walked out of the room, on down the long hall to the parking garage.

The next time, he was on the hill at the farm in Smith County. He called for his mother. “Mama, come on here. I’m up on the hill. They’re about to kill your last son. Don’t you see the smoke?”

He did not remember that seventy-two years ago on the same day, Halloween, he and my mother took a long taxi ride to Georgia and married. He was seventeen, she “fourteen-almost-fifteen,” they said.

My mom waits at home, not really worrying, just pondering. She is dressed in blue matching pants and top, her curly hair neatly combed back, and her ensemble accessorized with the usual rings, earrings, bracelet, and necklace.

After two days and several doses of psychiatric drugs, the restraints were removed. He was still agitated but not trying to hurt anyone. He rolled his sheet and blanket into a wad and tossed them to the floor. He pulled his arms through his gown, easing the heart monitor through a sleeve. The gown and a couple Chux pads found the floor. I heard a pop, pop, pop as he removed the leads to the heart monitor. He seemed pleased that he had wires to untwist. He repeated the process several times.

He slid down the bed and pounded the foot rail in a surprisingly steady rhythm. He called for my mother, yelling louder than he’s been able to in years.

I told him, “Dad, Mom is not here.”

Sometimes, for a minute or two, he believed me when I told him, “You’re in the hospital, Dad.”

“In the hospital? What am I doing here?”

I told him, “You have to stay for a while until you get better, and you are getting better.”

“Am I in South Carthage?”

“No, Dad, you’re in Nashville. At St. Thomas.”

At times, it connected and he said,  “Oh-h-h-h-h-h.” Another time he added, nodding his head, “So that’s the problem!”

One afternoon, he asked, “Did you know the cats are back?”

“No,” I said. “What are they doing?”

“Oh, they’re just lying around down there at the foot of the bed.”

I said, “But you’re not trying to kick them off.”

“No, I got used to them.”

From time to time, the psychiatrist Dr. Le Coguic stuck her head in the room to ask a few questions with telling answers.

She: What year is it, Mr. Blair? He: 2017. She: When were you born? He: Five, twenty-nine, no. Five, nine, no. Twenty-five. She: That’s good enough! Now who’s the President? He: Truman. She: Hmmmmm.

I snuck in a word there. “He really knows. I asked him myself yesterday and he said Truman and I said, ‘No, it’s Trump, Dad,’ and he said, ‘Yes, that’s who I mean so just pretend I’m saying Trump when I say Truman.'”

Dr. Le Coguic laughs out loud. “Good enough!” she said.

The next time she asked him, he said, “Oh, that damn Trump. Truman.”

The morning of November 7, I walked into the room where a soft-spoken chaplain introduced herself to me as Gail. She was asking Dad if he was a spiritual person. She didn’t understand him, but he answered her, “I suppose so. I’ve got a Master’s of Divinity from seminary.” I translated a few sentences to her until Dr. Chris MacMurdro from the Palliative Care Department stepped in. Because Dad was still talking with Gail, Dr. Mac asked if we might step down the hall to talk.

“Call me Dr. Mac or Chris,” she said and explained her specialty.  After several minutes of discussion about what I might expect or anticipate or decide, Dr. Mac told me with his refusal to eat or drink, Dad would likely be gone in two weeks. It’s too early for hospice, she said, but you will need them. If Dad goes to a skilled nursing facility, he might get a few days.

Just as Dr. Mac and I were ending our conversation, Gail approaches us from the doorway of the family waiting room. “Your dad,” she said, and placed her hand over her heart. “Oh my. And thank you for helping me understand what he was saying. I could understand him after that.”

“Good,” I said.

“This is the first time a patient has prayed over me,” she said.

“He did?” I asked.

She teared up. “I asked him if he would like me to pray with him, and he took my hands and said, ‘I’ll pray for you.'”

“And he did?” I said.

“Yes, and now I have to go sit down somewhere and cry.”

***

1105181807a
Still a small smile.

Later that day, when I told Dr. Mac the evening Zyprexa seemed to make Dad more agitated instead of less as it was supposed to do, she wanted to revisit his history of hallucinations and his increasingly weak legs. “Let me go back and look at his chart again,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”

“Dad,” I said, “would you drink one of your protein shakes? I have a cooler over here with three drinks in it. Which one–chocolate or vanilla?”

His eyes lit up a little. “Chocolate!”

I rolled the bed up and offered him the straw in the bottle. He tried to take the bottle.

“I want to drink it. Myself.”

“Well, okay.” I grabbed some Chux pads and tucked one around the top half of his body. I helped him hold the drink, with him struggling to wrest it from me, until I knew he’d had enough that he wouldn’t immediately pour the stuff all over himself.

He drank almost all of the eight ounces. He drank almost ALL of the EIGHT OUNCES, the most food of any kind he’d had since more than a week ago. 

Dr. Mac called.  “Diana, this is not Alzheimer’s. I’m thinking more like Parkinson’s with Lewy bodies. That would explain the reaction to the Zyprexa. Do you know much about Parkinson’s?”

“Enough. A lot,” I said.

She said he wanted to confer with the hospitalist, Dr. Meadors, about switching him over to something like Valium, which would be much more effective if we were treating Parkinson’s.

Sure enough, the Valium (or whatever it was) helped calm him. Dr. Mac called to say that Dad appeared now to qualify for in-patient hospice, and she had arranged a meeting with Rosie from Alive Hospice downtown. She explained her wish for inpatient hospice.

“The Parkinson’s thought changes everything. His medications seem to be headed in the right direction. He could use the meds management at inpatient to get them all tweaked to the point that you could manage him at home with the help of home hospice.” She fears for my ability to physically manage him at home right now and for my mother’s emotional health as she watches Dad decline.

I made her promise that she will always work toward our goal of getting him home. She repeats to me all the information I’ve given her, including the DNR and comfort care directives.

End of day, Wednesday, November 7.  Dad slept peacefully almost all night.

Yesterday morning, he knew me when I arrived. He smiled and said, “Hello, honey.” Dr. Mac called to discuss the latest strategy since he has improved enough that he probably does not qualify for inpatient hospice. “We’re thinking we can send him over to the rehab facility.”

Dad and I sat in quiet most of the day yesterday. He was tired. He thought he might want sausage and eggs. I tried. He drank a bit of milk shake. I tried again. I massaged his aching hands with cream, swabbed his gums and washed out his mouth.

“You’re going to make me bald,” he said when I rubbed his head. That’s a little joke we have. Not long after that, we both dozed at the same time.

When I told him I was leaving for the day, he said, “Be careful driving home. Is it still raining?”

I said, “No.” It did not rain all day yesterday.

Just as I started to exit the room, he called softly but firmly, “You are going to call Red Blair to help you get that big machine off the hill, aren’t you?”

“I sure will,” I promised.

*****

 

 

 

 

 

Murphy Sweet Punkin’

Murphy

 

Murphy lay on the floor and barked. I felt myself shaking a little. I held out my hand to see if the shaking was outside or in-. In, I decided.

The veterinary technician was familiar and I like her, but I could not come up with her name. Maybe it’s Chrissy. Dave might know, but he wasn’t there. He was Murphy’s primary caretaker, spent more time with her than anyone else. No way my husband could do this. I could, so I did.

Chrissy told me how sorry she was, tears in her eyes.

I nodded.

“I have a couple of things to go over with you,” she said. “There are three options. With the first one, you’d take her home with you.” When she offered the second option, I said, “Yes, that’s what we want,” a communal cremation where the crematorium scattered her ashes in a private wooded area.

Chrissy went on to the procedure. I stopped her and said I’d already discussed with Mel, the long-term receptionist, when I booked the appointment.

“Do you want me to put her on the table?” I asked.

She said yes, so I hefted our puppy’s almost 15 pounds on top of the exam table.  I still called her our puppy. Dave laughed at me and says “She’s hardly a puppy,” but her little Shih-tzu face still looked like a puppy to me.

Chrissy asked me to check and initial the preferred option and then sign permission. The initials ran off the line and I found it difficult to write my last name. Revell came out more like Reiwelll.

Dr. O’Neill eased the door open. She said she knew this was a difficult decision, and that we’d gone the extra mile for Murphy. “Do you want your friend to come in?”

“No,” I said and wrapped my arms around Murphy. The tech held her bottom half.

“Okay, sweet girl,” Dr. O’Neill said as she did the first injection, “you’ll sleep in a few minutes.” She stroked Murphy’s head. In sync, our hands touched. I instantly glanced at Dr. O’Neill, but she had already averted her eyes.

I held our Murphy Sweet Punkin while she drifted off to sleep. I knew she was asleep when she started to snore. She grew heavier and the tip of her tongue protruded. I smiled.

“I think she’s asleep,” Dr. O’Neill said.

I lifted Murphy’s back leg and let it fall–gently. “She is.”

The second injection of clear deep pink solution struck me as a good color. I’d always told groomers “She’s partial to hot pink” when they asked if they could put bows on her ears.

It took three tries for Dr. O’Neill to get a good vein. They were all small and kept collapsing. When the needle found the third vein, it seemed that my little old dog’s heart stopped beating within a couple of minutes. I held her tight and wept, happy to see a tissue box at the end of the table.

“Okay,” I said, “I’m going to leave her with you.” I kissed her head and said something like “Sleep, no more pain now.” I moved her gently from my arms to the table.

I know Dr. O’Neill and Chrissy said something. I don’t know what they said.

When I reached the waiting room, I nodded to my friend Peggy, who had driven me to Animal Care Center. At the counter, I said, “Do I need to sign…..”

“No,” the young woman at the desk said, “we’re good. I’m so sorry.”

I turned to Peggy. “Okay,” I said. She followed me out the door.

Past the beautiful statue of St. Francis and the animals, I remembered to pick up the bag of poop I’d left on the short wall around the clinic front patio. We didn’t see a trash receptacle so I put it on the floor of the van, along with the pink harness and leash.

When we got home, I gathered my purse, my water bottle, and the leash. “Oh, let me get the poop,” I said.

Peggy answered, “Whew, I’m glad you said that. It’s pretty ripe.” We both laughed a little.

“You mean you could smell it?” I asked.

“Lord, yes,” she said. “But I knew you couldn’t smell anything.”

I laughed. Peggy knew my sense of smell left with years of inhalers and other medications for asthma.

We hugged and I told her thank you, couldn’t say much more. I had to get inside to Dave and his grief combined with mine.

When I walked onto the porch and threw the bag of poop in the trash, I realized I never looked at Murphy’s face. No way I could look at that little face. But I’ll always remember it.

***

 

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Grillo!

I have this card (or maybe I had this card) that says something like, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I’ll always be…[open the card] younger than you!” I can’t find it.BirthdaycardJ

Mrs. Grillo and I became forever friends in seventh grade, some fifty-six years ago. My family had only been in California six months, living in Mill Valley where my dad was a seminary student. We moved to Pittsburg when Dad was called as Pastor of Temple Baptist Church.

It was the start of the second semester at Hillview Jr. High. When the gym teacher said “Raise your hand if you do not yet have a locker,” I replied something to the effect of, “My locker has done been possessed.” My Southern accent combined with the funny way I said it inspired a great roar of laughter from every girl in the room, including the teacher.

I didn’t mind. I had been miserable at the Mill Valley school where I started seventh grade. When the kids laughed at me there, I knew they laughed at me, my hillbilly-ness, my inferiority. I knew this because one of the teachers told me. But that first day at Hillview was very different. It was as if I made them laugh and that was great! Maura Jean Snyder laughed, too, and she’s laughed at me ever since. Lots of times, she’s cried with me.

By the time we hit Pittsburg High School, we were the ultimate teenyboppers. We adopted nicknames. She was Ja, with one of those long vowel lines over the a, I was Dee. We were wild about the Beatles, our fashion choices inspired by the British Invasion. We sewed military-style wool jackets. Mine was camel, hers was grey. We loved Motown and soul, handed to us on a platter in the diversity of our town. We could jerk and we could twine. We wore wheat-colored jeans and short-sleeved sweatshirts out of class, the dress code for young women denying pants of any kind in school. Except for dance days, and then a female person could wear pants and huge plastic hair rollers. I never caught on to the hair-roller thing.

When my father graduated from seminary and accepted an appointment with the Home Mission Board to Lewistown, Montana, I stayed with Ja’s family to complete my senior year.

We danced. Jean was much better than I, a seasoned champion roller-skater. Really. She was a U.S. champ. I danced anyway. Ja and I choreographed a mournful dance to a Barbra Streisand song about loss wearing wide-legged jumpsuits we made ourselves. Hers was olive green, mine was a burnt orange. When senior awards were handed out, she got one for Best Dancer, I got one for Most Improved. My boyfriend asked me, “Does that mean you were the worst in the class at the beginning?”

We went to San Jose State together. The second year, I went to Montana to stay with my folks for a year, and Ja pledged a sorority. The third year, Ja came to live with my family in Montana and I went to the University of Montana at Missoula. Ja rode herd on the Wong boys, my three little foster brothers. She loved it.

The fourth year, we didn’t go to any school. We married best friends. Her wedding was at the end of March, mine mid-May. She decided we should enroll in dance classes at a local studio. Ja and her husband became godparents to our first son Jade.  We moved to a farm in Norene, Tennessee when Jade was eleven months old. A year later, we went home to Montana for a visit. I was pregnant with John.

Ja and her husband, godparents again, came to Tennessee for the baptism when John was about five months old. Ja and I loved the visit, particularly the times when she and I could be alone with each other, two old friends catching up but not finding much to catch up on. After all, we had the U.S. Mail. We played cards after Jade went to bed, John sitting in Ja’s lap propped between the table and her middle.

She had previously told me that it didn’t look like she would have children. After seeing her easy rapport with Baby John at the card table, I bet her $5 that she would be pregnant in the next six months. Or maybe I bet her she would have a baby within the next year. I don’t really know which it was, although I’m sure she does. Just a few months later, I received an envelope from Montana. The only thing inside was a $5 bill.

There’s so much more–too much more, too many pages. A couple of girlfriends accumulate a lot of stories over fifty-six years. We divorced the best friends, went back to college (she graduated, I didn’t), worked hard (she became a math teacher–and then a math coach!), mourned losses, put kids through school, remarried, got grandbabies, and one day years and years after that first meeting in gym class, realized that we could not just call ourselves best friends.

We had begun to feel when things were going wrong with each another. We fret over each other’s husbands, kids, and grandkids. We research each other’s illnesses. We cry for each other when something’s not right. We give advice, solicited or not. We easily take or reject said advice. We whoop it up when joy arrives. We visit each other across the country whenever we can. There is never a day that either of us don’t think about the other.

Somewhere along the way, we became sisters.

I have called Mrs. Grillo very early every birthday morning. I’ve only missed a few, always for good reason. I missed yesterday. There was a good reason. I remembered at 7:00 Central Time. Years ago, I gave up the 5:00 A.M. call. It was just too early. Yesterday, I decided I would call at 9:00 o’clock, which would be 7:00 o’clock in the Santa Cruz hills of California. But then all hell broke loose, which is fairly routine around these parts, and I was caught up in the fray with my mind diverted.

Mrs. Grillo, the day event went more downhill, so to speak, or I guess Dave went downhill as he fell into the ravine. After the neighbor and I fished his bloody self out, I took him directly to the ER. He’s fine, no worries. He got stitches where he face-planted a stump, and he’s a tad sore all over.

I’ll be on Message+ or the phone later to tell you the rest of the story. I’ll make that happen before this day is over. It may actually come in another blog post.

I love you, Sis, and hope you had good stuff at Little Italy–Is that the name of that restaurant? No, I think it might be Little Napoli. Now I know you had some cold bubbly, and I toasted you with some Jack and Coke. Did you feel it?BDcard

 

Jimmy Lee Wong 1955 – 2018

When I was in my first year of college at San Jose State, three little brothers came to live with my parents in Montana.  One of those little boys, Jimmy Lee Wong, died yesterday mid-day.

Jimmy Lee Wong was the oldest of the three, eleven months older than Jerry Lee, who was eleven months older than Johnny Lee. Two of the boys were mentally challenged as was their mother. Their father, Lee Wong, was very old and had died only a couple of months before.  The boys had already been in three foster homes. Lee Wong was Chinese, thirty-five years older than Lucille Deserley of the Pembina Band of Chippewa under the leadership of Chief Thomas Little Shell.  Lucille, a beautiful young woman in the one photo I’ve seen, died in childbirth when the boys were just toddlers.

It was a couple of days before my Christmas break when Dad drove the boys from the Social Services office in Great Falls to our home in Lewistown.  When I arrived home from a long drive home from the Billings airport, Mom called them from their basement “suite.” They bounded up the stairs whispering to each other, hands over mouths, and lined up in the kitchen. I guessed which name went with which boy. What I remember most is their eyes. Against their copper/olive skin, their eyes were big, round, and almost black.

Everything the boys brought with them, all their worldly goods, the entirety of their belongings, fit in two cardboard boxes and one Chinese trunk.  The trunk was almost empty except for an envelope of ten pictures, a couple of books, and a ginger jar they gave to Mom. The boxes contained a few pieces of clothing each and some old pots and pans. No coats. It was December in Montana and there were no coats.

Mom issued a “please help” to the ladies of the church. Those women blessed us and  gathered good coats, jeans, shirts, and shoes. Mom sent me on a run to the five and dime (Woolworth’s, I think) for underwear. When the manager saw my pile of whitey tidies, tee shirts, and insulated pieces, he asked me who on earth I was shopping for. When I told him, he sighed and said, “I think we can afford a donation here.”

Those three didn’t talk much at first.  I coaxed them, and then they turned loose. Well, Jerry and Johnny became quite the conversationalists; Jimmy, not so much.  For all the years the Wongs were in the Blair home, Jimmy’s main communication consisted of “Good, Mom,” which he said after every meal, every snack, and “Mom, Mom, somebody farted.” Those two statements are etched into our family’s culture. We still quote Jimmy.

The years were good–and bad–to the Wong boys. Jerry and Johnny wound up in Tennessee when Mom and Dad moved back home. In his late teens, Jimmy developed schizophrenia in addition to his other challenges, and since the boys were unadoptable and wards of the State of Montana, he was moved by the State of California to Billings. He has been under the supervision of a caseworker as part of what we used to call sheltered workshops. It was a lucky move for Jimmy. He thrived there, always had some kind of job, and was eventually allowed his own apartment where he was found in the floor yesterday.

For the past several years, Jimmy came to Tennessee for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We always bought him DVD’s to add to his immense movie collection. As an older adult, all of the words he never said when he was a kid came out, constantly and with frequent repetition. He laughed loud–at anything and everything. He was excitable when talking about problems he may have had on his job or with some other member of the center. Almost every year, he wound up in the ER with an asthma attack.

The word from his caseworker is he died of a rupture in his esophagus where it meets the stomach, caused by Barrett’s Esophagus Disease and the cancer that followed. We had never heard that he had the disease nor the cancer. We just knew he had a lot of reflux issues, asthma, and heart problems.

He was visiting a friend in his apartment building yesterday morning and didn’t stay long. The friend said he’d make some coffee. Jimmy didn’t want coffee. He said he just wanted to go home. It wasn’t long until his best friend George went to check on him and found him in the floor. He was already gone.

Last night, after talking with Jerry several times, I emailed a scanned copy of written permission to the funeral home in Billings to perform the cremation. I explained that I have no legal right to do it, and that I was doing it at Jerry’s request. The woman said, “That’s okay, we just need a signature from a family member.” I didn’t offer anything else.

Jimmy Wong, you came to this earth for hard times, but it seems you finished well–with friends and family and helpers who loved you. In your voice, I’m saying, “Good Jimmy.”

 

2017-12-23 13.41.29

 

Murphy bit my nose.

I knew it was coming someday, and it was my own fault. She was already in bed, curled up, occupying the space that would hold my feet if that little Punkin’ wasn’t there. I bent down at the foot of the bed to kiss her on the head and she didn’t feel me coming. Bless her, she can’t see, hear nor smell very well,  but most of the time she senses me present. She didn’t hurt me and didn’t growl. It was as close as she could get to biting without biting.

We’ll celebrate Murphy’s fourteenth birthday April 22.

2018-02-17 14.46.21

Jameson Blair Graham, the oldest grandson, will turn fourteen on May 17.  Our little black and white fuzzball Murphy Sweet Punkin’ has been plagued with medical problems, including an autoimmune disease, and has already lived past the average age of demise for a Shih-tzu. In contrast, Jameson is leaned in and fast approaching adulthood. He’s left all pre-teen notions behind and is a bonafide, full-fledged teenager.  He still loves his young cousin, and they think he’s wonderful. He’ll be driving on a learner’s permit in a little over a year.

Yeah, we know what’s coming, and we know it’s coming soon.

We bought a lift chair for Dad yesterday. It is a pretty chair, just the right size for his space, chocolate brown faux suede. LIFT chairDad turns eighty-nine in September. He’s fallen several times since Christmas, the time when his scleroderma started acting out as if on a mission. Some days, he’s needed help to get out of his old favorite recliner–or actually any chair he sits in. His legs won’t hold him up without his Rollator, and several times a day, he can’t even move his feet holding to the walker.

After Sunday Dinner this week, Dave and I made the decision to set the table at the apartment from now on. Mom always writes Sunday Dinner with the two capitals, I think because it’s one of their favorite times at our house.  We set the table with the good silverware and glasses, and we always use cloth napkins–unless we’re eating pasta with red sauce or pork barbecue. Dad was too weak to eat Sunday. It was exhausting to walk those one hundred steps or so to the table, impossible for him to navigate to a chair in the den, and futile to think he could get out of his at-my-house favorite, an old red chenille recliner.

Murphy loved Old Red in her younger years. It’s been a long time since she could jump on and off a chair.Murphy3

Monday morning, he was in the bedroom trying to play Merle Haggard on his new boombox (generously donated on Sunday afternoon by fellow book-clubber Susan) when he fell, punching out the cane back of his sturdy wooden chair. I hurried next door when Mom called. Dave was away from home, but I knew I could call on neighbor Don to help me get him up if necessary.  I found Dad on all fours, trying to crawl across the bedroom to the bathroom. He knew he needed to clean up and change some clothes. With Mom’s help, I convinced him to get his chest against his punched-out chair. It took three tries, but I got him up–and he helped. His voice was so weak I could barely hear him.

Once in the bathroom, he cleaned up as much as he could, holding himself upright by pressing against the clothes dryer. I “polished him off” and then scrubbed down the place, paying particular attention to the washer and dryer that acted as his props. I was reminded to find Mom a dryer since hers quit that very morning.  Later that afternoon, I bought a new dryer at Lowe’s and drove a few miles to Franklin to pick up my newly repaired sewing machine.

The dryer arrived on Tuesday morning.

We moved Dad’s old leather recliner downstairs to his study, a place nobody goes anymore except to water overwintering plants. We got another wooden armchair for Dad’s bedroom and started looking for a sturdy chair for the den, one that might be described as “easy in, easy out.”  Then we put Old Red up for sale, even though it really was the most comfortable seat in the house. It doesn’t match the den colors anyway.

So we’re prepared. We know what’s coming, but we don’t know how soon.

 

TomTom is gone.

I have grieved but not nearly as much as my dad. He made friends with the little grey and white kitten the first time TomTom crawled up the bank from the ravine. Dad was working outside and talked to his new friend every day until the cat was no longer afraid of him. Tom might have been six months old, or maybe just four. 2016-05-05-18-15-04

While Dad strolled around the Compound on his morning walk, Tom followed. Every chance he got, he rubbed Dad’s legs, sometimes winding between them to almost trip him. Dad learned to shake him loose. Tom didn’t mind.

One day I asked Dad if he had seen the tomcat that morning.

“Is he a tomcat?” he asked.

“Yes, he is.”

“You can tell?”

“Yes, I see some things that indicate to me that he is definitely a male.”

Dad named him TomTom, one of his favorite names for cats. He bought a little sherpa-lined bed and stuffed it into a protected spot on the apartment porch. Mom included Meow Mix on her grocery list.

TomTom chose Dave next. One morning, after he took the recycling cans to the street, Dave announced that Tom had let him pet him. I’ll admit I was a bit jealous.

“Well,” I said to Dad, “if that cat is going to stay around, I guess we better take him in for shots. And we need to have him neutered.”

I found a good community clinic with reasonable prices and told Dad I would give him Tom’s veterinary visit for his birthday. He was pleased. Tom wasn’t.

I borrowed a hard crate from a friend and set it outside–“so Tom can get used to seeing it.” Tom took off and didn’t appear until three days later when I returned the crate to the garage. We decided Tom had seen a cat-carrier, probably up close, at least once in his lifetime–and wasn’t fond of the experience.

My hairdresser told me she favored a soft-sided case, that it was easy to sort of “stuff the cat in and zip it up fast.” I started to purchase one, but my daughter-in-law said she’d loan me theirs. I figured I’d give Tom’s reluctance a couple weeks to subside.

He wouldn’t sleep in his little bed on Mom and Dad’s porch, so we moved it to the main house’s porch beside the den. He still wouldn’t use the bed, but he curled up almost every night on one of the wicker chair cushions. During the day, he’d walk or sit with Dad, stroll in the gardens, and nap in the sunlight on the bank or in the shade of one of the porches. He drank from a birdbath that I always filled with fresh water. He hunted up and down the ravine, the old home place he returned to at some point every day.

I started a morning-treat ritual with Tom, and he grew to like me. I gave him a small piece of meat or fish, and when I had no leftovers, I pulled out a small container of purchased cat food that I always kept on hand. After the appetizer, he climbed the steps to the apartment steps and finished off his bowl of Meow Mix.

Tom loved to aggravate our little Shih-tzu Murphy by meowing at her through the glass door of the den. She was always willing to growl, yap, and fuss at him. When Dave took her out for her bedtime walk, Tom either followed them down the street, Murphy barking and pulling at her leash until Dave had to pick her up and carry her away from the cat. Or if TomTom was already sleepy, he’d maybe open one eye from the middle of his warm, curled-up self and totally ignore that silly dog.

About the third week into our newly-cemented relationship, Tom began to walk into The Cellar when I’d open the door. He’d make one loop around the small kitchen area and then he was ready to get back outside. He also let me pick him up. He wouldn’t stay long, and he wiggled, but he didn’t really fight it, and he never scratched me.

I figured he was ready for the trip to the vet.  Easy-peasy this time.

I never got him there.

The last time we saw TomTom was right before the New Year, a couple of weeks after I’d sent out the Christmas newsletter where I included this photo of Tom sitting on a rock in the rose garden. It was also just about the same time that the neighborhood coyote sightings began. First, a woman posted that she’d seen a three-legged coyote. Next, another neighbor spotted one. One family came upon three in their back yard.

I put a Missing Cat notice on our neighborhood website. Several friends and neighbors told me, “He’s just tom-catting around. He’ll be back, and when you get him fixed, he’ll stop that.” In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t be found, wouldn’t be back. In my heart, I knew if TomTom could make it home, he would. He wouldn’t give up his morning ritual, he wouldn’t want to sleep anywhere else but the wicker chair, and he would never choose some other entertainment over tormenting Murphy.

It took me several days of missing Tom to put the pieces together, maybe because I didn’t want to. Actually, Dad said it first. “The coyotes got my TomTom.”

My post is still up on the NextDoor website. Last week, a sweet neighbor replied with a list of places to post notices for a lost animal. I wrote that I thought the coyotes got Tom. She replied she was sorry, and that she’d still look for him.

This morning, Dave spotted a coyote between two birch trees on the edge of our ravine. He said it wasn’t the three-legged one, so that meant there are at least two. I told him about the three seen together in the back yard a couple streets over. He hadn’t seen that post.

So here’s what I wrote on my Missing Cat thread this morning:  “I’m going to take this post down tomorrow morning. A coyote was in our back yard just now. Everybody, watch your animals.”

 

 

 

 

If you don’t like the weather today…

We’re pressure-washing the porch rails today. Last Sunday we might have used the pressure washer to de-ice the driveways.

January 24. Cabin fever, ah, yes. This sickness will make a girl jump up on the tables at the local Pizza Hut and cut loose a wild frug. I didn’t have cabin fever last week, but I do remember it from my winters in Montana.  We don’t usually get a socked-in amount of snow here in Nashville, but last weekend, oh boy! I loved it–just like I’ve loved the sunshine and warm temperatures this week.

But there are some people on the other side of that opinion. Okay, go ahead, all you weather-haters. “Snowed in!” Yell it–like Edwin Starr singing “War!” back in 1970.

SNOWED IN! Huh, yeah, Good God, y’all, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Now hear my opinion. Here’s what snowed in is good for:

JCSleddingSledding. Christmas gifts for the local grands were four-foot $10 plastic sleds (I’m sure they were made in China). The boys got blue and Carly got hot pink. We put the sleds on the porch instead of under the tree. Our Christmas this year sported 70-degree temperatures. Jaxton ran around yelling, “Come, look! I got a swed! I got a swed!” (He’s three.)196

Jameson and Carly took on the hill above their front yard. Jameson’s blue wonder eventually cracked when he hit a bump.

Reading. I confess I haven’t done much reading during these snow days, but if I could stay awake in the afternoons, I could knock a few off my list. Instead of reading, I’ve been….

Napping. Oh, how cozy it is to bundle up on the sofa. If you have cats, gather them around you. We only have an outside cat and he’s not quite tame enough to cuddle. However, he has enjoyed curling up in the rocker on the porch.

Movies. Or binge-watching a series. I finished the first season of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency at no charge and was disappointed to see that Season 2 was not On Demand. I guess I’ll have to rent or buy. This HBO production is based on Alexander McCall Smith’s books about a female sleuth in Botswana. Don’t expect a lot of violence and kinky sex, just culture, scenery, and sweetness (except for, uh, the mambas.)

Projects. I am famous for having almost as many projects stacked up as I do book titles, but today, I have two less! I painted a picture frame. I’m trying to take a page from one of my daughters-in-law and get all the frames in the house one color.

This is Mom’s grandmother, Ada Shoemake. 2016-01-24 14.54.30She was a hoss of a tiny woman, revered by both sides of my mother and father’s family. She looks so much better in black.

And these are the Pizza Hut chairs I 2016-01-24 14.53.44painted and upholstered for The Cellar. Bought these two years ago for $10 each, or was it $5?

Cleaning. (I was led to this topic by the mention of “projects.”) We are fortunate around the Compound to have bi-weekly housekeeping help for the regular stuff, but there is always something deeper that needs attention. I cleaned off three-quarters of my desk, does that count? Wait, wait, I also dusted the shelves beside the TV in The Cellar. Wow. By the time I make my way around the other book “wall,” the ones I just cleaned will be ready for another swipe.

Eating. Soups, for sure. Chili, beef stew, New England clam chowder, vegetable soup. There’s always something on the stove. And then everybody gathers around one table, sort of like Blue Blood’s Reagan family at Sunday night supper. (Or maybe they spread out on chairs, couches, blankets, and pillows in front of the TV.)

Birdwatching. The cardinals adore the snow. They are all over the branches and at the feeders. 2016-01-24 07.06.45This morning, I trained my eye on a red-headed woodpecker working his way up a tall elm rooted in The Ravine. My peripheral view included chickadees, more redbirds, purple finches, house wrens, and…a robin! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a robin in the snow.

Get outside. Walk in the snow. I recommend you wear boots. We don’t buy a lot of snow boots here in the South, but if you have boots for rain, they’ll work. Or if you have everyday boots that you don’t mind pushing through the powder (hard powder by now), use those. I surveyed the ravine while out with Murphy.2016-01-22 15.51.26

Always have your camera handy–or your phone, and don’t forget to take the dog with you. 2016-01-22 15.33.59Murphy loves the snow. She digs in with her face and plows.

Help a neighbor–or be helped. A post by Heather Corum Powell on our neighborhood Facebook page on Friday reminded me. “If anyone on Hilson has chocolate chips, I’ll make the cookies!” She got the chips, made the cookies, and then started delivery for those too far away to walk to get them. Since Dave and I are, ahem, watching the sugar, we asked her if she could take them to a single mom, or maybe a senior who can’t get out. Frankly, I didn’t feel that good being so altruistic and I’m a bit jealous of some old codger grinning over my cookies, if you know what I mean. <Sigh.> At least I know I did the right thing.

About that soup. If you’re like me, you always have an extra bowl (or pot, in my case) of soup. Since my neighbors have already foundered on my multiple pots of turkey soup this year, I haven’t reached out with the grub. Now I’m reminded that I need to.

The “be-helped” part. I’ve been a single mother in my past, and fortunate enough to know enough willing helpers to write at least fifty different stories. Every once in a while, I think of some of these people, and I write a note, but not nearly as often as I should. (Maybe some note-writing would be good during this in-house episode.)

If I were without Dave, I would not be able to drive the van up the driveway hill. I know that any one of the five closest neighbors would heed my call. First I’d try Saleh because he wants to help the most. Then Don–He’s the most vocal about my soup. Then I’d go for Steve. Maybe I should try Steve first. He’s from Upstate NY. Then Patrick or Chris since they’re younger, and therefore braver, than the rest.

Neighbors have volunteered all kinds of help on our Facebook page, not to mention the most helpful posts about street conditions from those who’ve been out. (See, there is some good in Facebook.) I feel inadequate to help. Dave did shovel all around the house, paths in both driveways, the ramp, and around the back doors, but I wouldn’t allow him to try the same thing for another house.  We have become the older ones. Note I did not say “elderly.”

My dad is always saying, “Let me do what I can, and then help me.” I think we should translate that to “I’ll do what I can, and then, if I need help, I’ll ask for it.” My second goal would be to always think of something we could do for somebody. I think I’m about to put on another pot of soup.

Sure hope Dave gets the porch rails blasted and they dry enough for me to caulk and paint tomorrow. This good weather is only going to last three days, they say. That means on Tuesday or Wednesday, I’ll be looking for things to do inside–and there may not be any snow to play in!

Mary Oliver First SnowSo here’s something to do that requires nothing but attention: Poetry. Yes, I know that is reading, but it’s almost, well, not–at least for me. I am fond of Mary Oliver (who isn’t?) so I’ve taken out all of her books that I have on a shelf and I carry them with me, upstairs and down. Here is just a little bit of a poem that stayed with me from last weekend.

Look it up. Read the whole thing. First Snow. You’ll be ready for it next time you get snowed in.

 

 

I’m no poet.

Some days I’m not sure I’m even a writer.  Writers are like that.

But Monday I took a small carton of blackberries to my friend and she wrote on a social media post: “Yum. Home grown blackberries with a little cream and raw sugar. Thank you, my sweet fruit fairy…”

Along with the blackberries, I shared a little ditty with her. She is a poet, a real one, but the fruit fairy was unashamed.

 

His Best Thing

 

I think blackberries are my dad’s best thing. Better than best, maybe best-est. Perhaps most best.

His briar patch is a twenty-foot arbor on the southwest side of our house.

He built it the spring after we all moved to the new place.

It might be a pergola, or maybe a trellis, but he named it Arbor and it stuck,

The propping place for fruit-heavy branches and gravity-driven berries on tender vine tips.

 

He stretched galvanized two by four-inch farm fence through its middle and across its top,

Secured in spaces on four-by-fours,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

He offers them one non-negotiable itinerary–up and out–

And they don’t mind going there,

But old habits of reach and arch point them groundward.

They see by his wire that all they’ll get is a proper path built for their own good.

They repent, and bow to the farmer’s convenience.

 

I collect at the bottom. Think I don’t know what they say about low-hanging fruit?

I’ll always pick it first, unimpressed by gossip.

Sometimes, easy-does-it hides big treasures.

Besides, they contradicted themselves when they said

“Don’t step into a briar where a snake might lurk to strike.”

Once I saw one in my dad’s blackberries.

Skinny grass-green Flash tripped over my flip-flop, made me laugh.

 

To fill my basket takes six passes.

Once each side that-away looking down,

One this-away looking up (which makes four).

Two more trips, one each direction,

Flat-footing a rusted vintage chair, non-wobbly against a thick post.

I figured the top gatherings shouldn’t count for more than two passes,

Although–The twenty-steps afoot do require two moves of the ladder for each side,

Six mounts and dismounts, too.

 

If I wanted, I could count as trips the shorter jaunts between the makeshift scaffolding.

I could. The truth is these are my berries now.

I decide—to pluck or to leave,

Jam or jelly, canned or frozen, cobbler or double-crust, fresh or later.

Are they sweet this year? I take the largest one, let the taste linger.

No, my berries are tart, not at all like my dad’s, nothing to remind me of him.

 

Some say to stand on a rusty chair instead of a stepstool is to welcome a fall.

Sometimes, often, I think they’re right.

Picking across the top takes practice and balance,

And vision adapted to a peripheral gaze across a close horizon.

Within my reach waits a sturdy brace,

Sunk deep in the ground

To the credit of a post-hole digger he brought from the farm.

 

 

What we do for love…

Mama usually calls maybe once a day. Today she called four times. Her knee replacement surgery is next Monday. She’s concerned about her wardrobe, the low potassium diet her urologist has recommended, and the three weeks she’ll spend in post-operative re-habilitation.

2013-11-28 10.58.28“Your father doesn’t want me to go to re-hab for three weeks,” she says. “He says we can do everything I need right here.”

“Well, he’s wrong, and Dr. Shell wants you to go to re-hab,” I say. Dr. Shell is her orthopedic surgeon.

“I know. I want to go to re-hab, too. I need to do it.”

“You just want to know he’s going to be okay without you?” I ask.

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she says, waving it off. “He just doesn’t want to be here alone.”

Mom and Dad married at fifteen and seventeen. I don’t think they’ve been apart any longer than a five-day stretch. To use the psychological term, they are “enmeshed”. In day-to-day operating language, their very breaths are one. Each needs the other to survive.

The anniversary of their first date is Groundhog Day, when Dad walked Mom home from church. He was most perturbed this year that he could not find the dark-chocolate-covered cherries that he always gives Mom for that special occasion. I promised him I would find some. I’ll look tomorrow.

I wonder what will happen when the first of them goes. From my current perspective, we pray for Dad to depart before Mom. Yes, it is true that my life, and Dave’s, would be easier, but we also think Mom would be able to take alone-ness better than Dad. Mom is more adaptable, more able to make something drinkable from bitter fruit, more likely to roll it around until she can squeeze out a juice she can swallow.

Dad says, “Your mom always sees the best in everything. I see the problems.”

Even now, she relishes a lunch outing, while Dad would rather heat up canned cream-of-chicken soup. Mom is the one who, even with painful knees, is most willing to perch on the front passenger seat of the Sienna to take to the road.

“Mom,” I tell her, “We’ll see that he eats and takes his medicine and doesn’t work too hard. We’ll bring him to visit any time he wants. I could even bring him over there first thing in the morning and he could stay all day. He could play his guitar, and talk to the other residents.”

“Oh, Lord.” She changes the subject. “Can you put buttons on that wrap-around robe?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that, well, uh, I’ll do that…before you go to the hospital. Did you try on your new moccasins?”

“Yes, they feel great.”

“Are you able to slip your feet into them?”

“Oh, yeah,” she answers.

“Without bending over to pull them on, I mean?”

“I think so.”

“Tomorrow you can show me.”

“Okay. Hey, I need to add a couple of things to my grocery list. I need three apples, some cherries, carrots, and a cucumber–just one. I see I can eat all those.”

“Dave’s doing your shopping. I’ll let him know.”

“Oh, he’s going to the store for me? How come he decided to do it?”

“We bargained. He said he’d do the shopping run if I gather all the things he’s asked for in order to do the taxes. I just hope he gets the right things.”

“He’ll do fine. Just tell him to call me if he has questions. He doesn’t mind calling. If your daddy went with this list, he’d get at least half of it wrong. He wants to do it, but he’s really not good at it.”

“Did you start taking your Bumex again?” I ask. “You start that again today, and then….”

She interrupts me. “…and then I stop it again after Saturday before the surgery.”

“Right. And the….”

“The spirolactone, too. I stop that after Saturday, too. I sure wish I could drink orange juice. I’m going to miss that.” She hastens to add, “But don’t worry, I’m going to do everything he told me to do. Are they going to let me wear Depends?”

“Oh, I think for the surgery, you might be au naturel, but the nurse at the education session said they want you to wear your own clothes as soon as possible. I bet you’ll put on an outfit the day after surgery.”

“Can you put a little makeup bag in your purse?”

“Sure.”

“You want to watch Gunsmoke?” she asks.

I hesitate. “Just for a few minutes. I might not make it to the end. I have to get over there and get some work done.”

“Well, I just don’t know what I’d do without you,” she says, pointing the remote at the TV.

“I don’t know…I don’t know what I’d do without you, either,” I answer.

My friend Inez Torres Davis posted on Facebook a few days ago: My mother loves to do jigsaw puzzles. I do not. Or, I will put it this way: I do not MIND doing them so much if the picture on the box is helpful and I have nothing else that needs to get done. This puzzle we are doing? The picture does not help one bit and it was clearly designed by a sadist! I do jigsaw puzzles with my mother because I can sit close to her. I love jigsaw puzzles.

Inez, I know exactly what you mean.

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