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.

Altering the Course

It’s not usually the weather that alters the activity around the compound, but today… The tornado siren was wailing, Channel 5’s weatherman said to run for cover, and Murphy was extremely agitated. So Dave rounded up the old folks and we all headed for The Cellar just about 1:00 o’clock.

Actually, I was already here. At 12:45, I had popped a frozen shepherd’s pie into the oven for lunch expected to be at 1:30. We take our main meal at the middle of the day now. Mom and Dad just do not like to eat a big meal in the evening, and since I wanted to make sure of what, exactly, and how much, they are eating… Well, here they all came. Mom was first down the stairs, slow but steady. Dad followed, holding on to the banister with two hands. Dave brought up the rear, carrying Murphy. Murphy does not like storms.

“Well,” Dave said, after Mom and Dad had taken their seats on the couch, “I think I’ll have a glass of wine. Who wants to join me?”

All hands went up. Well, actually, Murphy only looked up. She thought Dave had mentioned “treat time.” Or maybe it was the word “wine.” Usually, when someone around the compound is having wine, they’re also having crackers—and crackers are her favorite treat.

Dad wanted red so I sprinted up the stairs to retrieve a bottle of Cabernet from the dining room. Mom said she wanted red, too. I asked her if she wanted me to add a packet of Splenda. She likes it very sweet.

Mom sat on one end of the couch and Dad on the other, holding hands across the empty middle until Murphy jumped up between them. They let go to pet Murphy.

“What if we have to stay here for a long time?” Mom asked.

“I guess we’ll just stay here and drink,” I answered. I started to sing Merle Haggard’s 1980 hit. “…You don’t care about the way I think. Think I’ll just stay here and drink.”

“Daddy,” Mom said, “You’re going to drop your wine glass.”

“Are you asleep?” I asked.

“No, just almost,” he said. “That wine made me sleepy.”

Dave took the glass to the sink.

We were about an hour later than we meant to be eating that shepherd’s pie. It was good.

Then, somehow, we got started on a discussion of what might happen if Mom died first—before Dad. Wait—I know how that happened.

When I cook and take the meal to the apartment, Dad usually manages the kitchen cleanup. When he clears the table and puts the dishes in the dishwasher, he would prefer that no one stacks the dishes. He reminds us frequently. Today, he said, “I have my own way of doing this, and I like to take one dish at a time to the sink and then rinse it and put it in the dishwasher.  If y’all stack them all up, you just make a mess of my system.” (Mom immediately withdrew her reach toward my plate and silverware.)

“See,” he said, “This is one of the few things I get to do this the way I want to.”

“That’s because Mom does everything else for you,” I said.

“I know,” he said, “But it’s not my fault. It doesn’t matter what I start to do. Even if I am just going to make myself a piece of toast, she comes up behind me and says, ‘Oh, honey, let me take care of that for you.’”

“Here’s what I want to know,” Dave said. “What are you going to do if she dies first?”

“I’ll have to find me another little gal to take care of me,” Dad answered, and winked.

Mom was unfazed. “Doesn’t work that way at your age, Buddy,” she said.

Then Dad said to Dave, “Well, you could put my medicine out for me to take like she does, and…”

“Oh, no,” Dave said, “You’re bound for the ice floe. We’re not going to put up that nonsense.”

I said I thought we ought to just ask the crematorium’s driver to take Dad, too, when he comes to pick up Mom.  “…just let you two go on together,” I said.

We all laughed. We joke often about a time that really will arrive one of these days.

Dad turned serious. “I think I feel more secure right now than I ever have,” he said. “I don’t worry about anything.”

Then we talked of retirement centers, skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, doctors, and medicine. We discussed the financial ability of our children, the care given in institutions, and what we all might do at the time that the first of my two parents dies.

It was a practical discussion—not emotional, not sad.

There are doctor appointments this week, and next, and maybe the week after. Dad will see the ophthalmologist for his annual eye exam tomorrow and his urological surgeon for a follow-up on Friday morning. The next week Mom sees the endocrinologist and then the cardiologist. I’m not sure what comes next after that, but sometime this week, I have to re-investigate a lab bill that Medicare did not pay.

What was I going to do today? I was taking a new laptop to the computer store to have it loaded. Now I’ve decided there’s just been too much rain and too little time is left in the day. Mom said she had intended to quilt but after lunch she might just take a nap instead. Dave said he might work on his mother’s finances, even though there was not much time left in the day. Dad said he couldn’t remember what he was going to do. Later, when the rain stopped, I saw him walking around the courtyard with his cane; he seemed to be exploring.

Altered courses—we experience a lot of those. That’s okay. Whatever it was that I meant to do (I think it might have been organizing books), it will wait. I keep reflecting on what Dad said.  “I feel more secure right now that I ever have.”

Where’s that wine? “My mind is nothin’ but a total blank—Think I’ll just stay here and drink.”

Except I said “drank.” Rhymes better.

***

2012–Living Into It

I watched 2012 dawn on the water in Florida. I always sing “Red Sails in the Sunset” when I see that big red ball of fire near the horizon. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sunrise or sunset, the song seems to fit and it makes me smile. I was up alone in the Destin condo while Dave and our friends snoozed for a couple of hours. I wasn’t lonely. I love that time of day, no matter where it happens to be.

The night before, we cooked a festive dinner of filet of beef and shrimp scampi and toasted with the balcony doors wide open to the rolling evening waves, a sincere toast to a “good” year. I should have stayed up to see something drop somewhere at midnight–a peach in Atlanta, a music note in Nashville, or the ball in New York City, but I just couldn’t keep these eyes open past 10 P.M. I didn’t want to.

I remember thinking, just before pulling the covers over my head, “There ought to be resolutions, oughtn’t there?” And then, “Something to think about when we get home.”

I started to think about 2012 in late September, I guess because fall is the time I start to think of what to write in the Christmas letter. Don’t congratulate me for in-depth planning. I don’t produce that holiday mailing until the week before Christmas. I just give myself plenty of time to root around in my failing memory and a chance to interview Dave regarding his take on the year’s most meaningful moments.

What do I want for 2012? By early October, I knew the overall theme I would adopt for the new year. I wanted to get my priorities straight–and I knew I didn’t want to wait until January 1.

By the second half of 2011, Mom and Dad required more attention. Dad is still a workhorse in the gardens and on the banks of the ravine, and he still team-teaches a Seniors Sunday school class; but he tires more easily and he seems to have more frequent “bad” days. His most consistent nutrition is taken in the form of ice cream, about a gallon a week, and his breakfast is a cookie with his coffee. Sometimes I can tempt him with New England clam chowder, enchiladas, or shepherd’s pie, but he never misses the ice cream or the cookie.

Mom’s arthritis seemed to progress more rapidly and then she had a bout with stomach distress that culminated in the removal of her gallbladder. Even after her surgery, she missed days of her water aerobics for arthritis when she woke up with stomach upset. We’re still trying to figure out what’s causing this recurring gastritis.

Sometime in the last half of the year, the four of us began to eat a common meal at the middle of the day, an old Southern custom. Most of the time, I cook. It’s my way of knowing the two oldsters eat a balanced meal each day; or, perhaps it’s knowing they are offered a balanced meal each day since my menu choices are not always hits out of the ballpark. I’m happier with the cleanup, too, when I cook.

When our resident old folks made a trip to Nevada to visit my brother and his family, my daughter-in-law and I launched a cleaning invasion in the apartment, scrubbing every dish, glass, and pan, replacing bath rugs and towels, re-engineering storage, and detailing bathrooms. Dave and I hired bi-weekly cleaning help without consulting the parents–and then thought about how to spin such a move when they returned.

We shouldn’t have fussed over their feelings. Mom loves the Monday all-clean house and Dad loves Mom loving it. Mom says she didn’t know how hard it was on her to change the sheets until someone else starting doing it. She says she didn’t realize how much she was letting go because it was too difficult for her to do. And she says she guesses she deserves to have her house cleaned now that she’s eighty.

The October short list of priorities went like this: more care and attention for Mom and Dad, write more/write more often, get that garage monstrosity cleaned up. There are still a few boxes that we’ve never unpacked–no, really, there are– and I regularly make something of a mess rooting around in what has been unpacked and reorganized. Who am I kidding? That garage is downright offensive.

I acted on the first two items on the list before Christmas, resigning from several time-eating activities, committees, and responsibilities. Actually, I answered the call on that second item earlier in the year by joining the best writing group I’ve ever had. I am not writing as much as I want to, but I am writing consistently and my novel-in-progress now gets weekly attention. I piddled and dilly-dallied with that thing about cleaning up the garage…

Now that almost half a month of the new year has passed, I think I’ll give myself a progress report. I didn’t rush but I packed away the twenty-odd bins of Christmas stuff. That corner of the garage looks good. Dave pounded some nails in the rafters so that I could hang baskets and wreaths. We hauled an old bookcase into my office to hold the overflow from the current wall of books. I figure if I do one little thing–just one weeeeeee thing–each day, I’ll have the entire downstairs organized and cleaned up by, oh, let’s say Easter.

Unless I get interrupted.

I finished Chapter 15 of the novel the first week in January. “It is a pivotal chapter,” I told myself, “and that’s the reason Chapter 16 runs from me.” But a funny thing happened in the garage yesterday. I found Chapter 16 just about the same time I found how I can make myself write more. It all has to do with that promise to clean up the garage. Three times as I was lifting, wagging, and settling boxes, I stopped to run to my desk in The Cellar to record a new scene, one that absolutely would not wait a minute longer.

I was certain this fight between organizing and creating a story would stand as evidence for the left brain vs. right brain theory (which I never really understood) and that Right was battling Left. But when I skittered around on various websites regarding creative writing or language or stacking boxes, I found educated opinion that such behaviors might all require bi-lateral brain activity. Well–who cares? I’ll just plan to push, pull, sweep, hang, stack, dig, and flop–and the chapters will interrupt the cleaning and demand to be heard! Or read. No, written.

More care and attention for Mom and Dad is a given. It just…happens. Dad has two doctor appointments next week. I’m working on an appointment for Mom. I cook almost every day. I also clean in the kitchen every time I go to the apartment. I wash all the kitchen linens which Mom changes every other day. I’m going to the apartment more often. I try to pop in for coffee or breakfast every other day. Dave and I still attend the 5:00 P.M. “cocktail hour.” We don’t leave Dad alone. If Mom and I go to the hobby store, Dave visits with Dad. I find a calm comfort in caring for them.

A funny thing happened in late 2011 after I embraced priority. I became able to “let it be.” Remember that John Lennon song? I don’t know who spoke those “words of wisdom.” My new feeling came as a gift, one that I received without knowing exactly how or when it arrived. As I attended that sunrise show in Destin, I was surprised to realize that I had found my joy. It was my epiphany. A couple of pastor friends call this kind of peace with the circumstances “living into it.”

This new year, the third year of living in the compound with Mom and Dad, is off to its own start. It will be as different from 2011 as 2011 was from 2010, and as 2010 was from 2009. This time will be its own time. I’ll carry on with the 2012 three-point plan and I’ll do one wee little thing every day about caring for my parents, about writing, about organizing, but to make this year’s moments really count, I think Dave and I–and Dave and I and Mom and Dad–can help each other by just living into them. All of them.