Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Tooth of the Matter

My husband and I recently returned from an evening out to find that my mother had headed up to bed. This is not unusual. Although we tell her that we will only be gone for a little over an hour and we put on her favorite shows, she gets tired of sitting alone on the sofa. Since moving in, she has often said that the bed is her favorite place in the house. She proves this constantly. With a chronically painful back and low energy level, I can’t say that I blame her.

The issue is that she often heads up to the bedroom with certain things left undone. This is tough on both of us. For me, I have to rouse her out of bed and give her step-by-step instructions when all I really want to do is relax and watch TV or sit on the back deck with John. For mom, it entails getting out of bed when she is groggy and performing her nightly rituals as I prod her along — sometimes patiently, sometimes not.

On this recent occasion, mom needed to change out of clothes into her pajamas, take out her dental bridge — which she refers to as her partial plate —  and wash it and put it away, and brush her teeth. Things were sputtering along slowly and I was starting to lose patience. I thought that life was playing a cruel joke as I saw my mother struggling with her partial plate.

“I can’t get my partial plate out,” she announced. Lots of things have gone awry since Mom moved in. But never this. This was a”first” that I was not appreciating at all.  I sighed and did what I do best. “She can’t get her bridge out,” I shouted downstairs to John. Misery loves company.

John then did what he does best. He shouted instructions from the living room. “Tell her to drink some water, her mouth might be dry.”

“What did he say?” Mom asked.

“He said to drink water, your mouth might be dry,” I yelled. “Oh!” Mom replied, startled. “Sorry mom, I forgot you and I are in the same room.” Exhaustion was surely setting in. Or was it those two glasses of wine?

Mom dutifully drank the water and tried again. No luck. “Drink more water,” I said. “Maw watah?” she asked doubtfully. She knew as well as I did that this would entail endless nighttime trips to the bathroom for her. But I needed to put this puppy to bed. I was mentally willing that partial plate to give up its iron grip.

So mom drank the water again. No dice. I sighed, thinking about the unfortunate effects that yet another glass of water would have on the poor woman. And so, desperately needing sleep and emboldened by the two glasses of wine, I did the unthinkable.

“I’m goin’ in,” I announced loudly to mom. “Oh my gawd,” she said. “Oh, my gahd,” John yelled from downstairs. If you had told me years ago that I would ever face my mother with a grimace, firmly grab the two steel hook-like fasteners behind her eye teeth, and pull — well of course I would have called you crazy.

But I did it. And nothing happened. Aggravated and emboldened, I tried again (with my eyes closed this time). I felt something happen and opened my eyes. My mother looked like a deer caught in the headlights. And when I looked at her teeth I almost swooned with shock. I hadn’t pulled out the bridge. I had merely dislodged it, to the point where mom looked like one of “them fellers with the crooked teeth” in the crude cartoons of old.

“Oh my gawth,” mom said, horrified as she looked in the mirror. “Put them back, put them back,” I begged. And, very calmly, she did with a confident “click.” Then my mother and I sighed and looked at one another. She immediately started laughing hysterically. And so did I. We both had to hold on to my pedestal sink and one another to keep from falling. “What happened?” John asked from downstairs. We were laughing too hard to answer, except for me to say, “It’s OK!”

Because it was, thanks to Mom. I had forgotten how terrifically calm my mother always was during any of my childhood and teenaged and — yes — adult disasters, and how she always managed to do the right thing or better yet convince me to do it.  Caring for my mother on a day to day basis and seeing her weaken mentally and physically had caused me to  forget what a rock-solid presence in my life she is.

“What do we do now?” my mother asked. I was still tired, but the laughter had taken the “edge” right out of me. “If you can’t get them out, we’ll just call the dentist,” I answered in a calm and somewhat cheerful voice that surprised even me.

After Mom was finally in bed I headed down the hall.

“Mary Ann!” she yelled.

“Yes?” I answered warily. What else could have possibly happened?

“I got my partial plate out!” she announced proudly.

“You did?” I said gleefully. I was literally giddy with joy at not having another doctor phone call or visit  to look forward to.

“I knew I had to do it,” she announced. “I hate going to the dentist.”

“Yes, I know,” I laughed. I bring my mother to the nicest dentist on the planet, with the funniest assistants.  I feel like going to his office is almost like going to a party. I’m serious. Mom, however, is still is not “buying into” the program and resists going except for emergencies.

“My mother should have forced me to go when I was little, but she didn’t,” Mom said. “That’s why my teeth were always bad.”

I took this information in. Mom was right. My grandmother should have forced the issue. Although strict about many things — religion and morality among the top items — my grandma was soft on others. And she went fairly easy on me as she did with most of my cousins. My plump and adorable little grandma always represented a soft landing.

But my mother — man, she was a presence. A force of nature. If my Grandmother was a placid lake, my mother was the ocean. She could be fierce when stirred. But her strength worked in my favor, because  she always somehow managed to make everything work out all right.

Apparently she still can.

My mother, adorable grandmother, and beloved Aunt Millie visiting Point Pleasant Beach.
My mother, adorable grandmother, and beloved Aunt Millie visiting Point Pleasant Beach.





Good Morning! Good Morning!

I have a new definition of being caught “between a rock and a hard place.” It is when I am halfway through my second cup of coffee and relaxing with the newspaper when I hear my mother heading down the hallway stairs. I always put down my coffee and head over to greet and interrogate her. She is always dressed and ready for action as though she consistently wakes up at the crack of dawn instead of 11. In truth, and blessedly, it happens rarely. But when it does, it really throws a wrench into my day. “What are you doing up?” a very peeved voice in my head always asks. But I silence that voice and ask as nicely as I can manage — well, “what are you doing up?”

This happened again yesterday at 8 a.m. I asked Mom if she was hungry, and she was not sure. I asked if she was still tired, and she was not sure. I reminded her that she normally has breakfast at 10:30 or 11, and she said — as usual — “Well then what should I do?” “Well, you could go back to bed,” I suggested — as usual — with my fingers crossed behind my back. Sometimes she does. And sometimes she does not. And sometimes she heads back up, only to come back down again a half hour later.

Yesterday Mom did not head back to bed. Something compelled her to continue down the stairs and into the kitchen, and I did not argue. I put aside my newspaper and fixed her coffee and breakfast. When she finished, she asked if she could go back to bed. “No, you need to stay for a while” I answered and Mom gave a disappointed sigh. And I felt badly. But really, going to bed after eating a bagel with cream cheese and downing two cups of coffee can’t be good for anyone’s digestive system — never mind that of an eighty-nine year old.

Mom was sitting in the living room watching television a half-hour after finishing her breakfast when I decided to  run errands. Usually she is blessedly asleep for my morning errand run, and it is easily accomplished with her being none the wiser. Instead I found myself answering repeated questions about where I was going and for how long. I realized that this endless interrogation was taking up a bit of time, and I needed to hit the drugstore, the food store, and finally the UPS store before 11. “I’ll be back in an hour, just keep watching TV,” I said, and guiltily continued to head out the door as she was about to ask yet another question. “Enough is enough,” is what John and I have told one another on a number of occasions when we are forced to take this evasive action. Still, I felt badly.

An hour stretched into more than an hour and a half thanks to traffic and lines at the grocery store. When I returned home I was surprised and relieved to see Mom sitting in her usual spot on the sofa. (More often than not she takes it upon herself to head upstairs back to bed.) As I passed, she said, “I’ve been sitting here for a WHILE, you know.” The angry tone in her voice almost stopped in my tracks, but the momentum from the grocery bags I was carrying moved me along to the kitchen. Which was a good thing, because I needed to catch my breath and think.

I walked back into the living room and faced Mom, who looked tired and unhappy. “Mom, you need to understand that everything I do around here takes time,” I said. I could see her wheels spinning as she furrowed her brow. “You’re telling a good one, I don’t remember anything,” she replied. It was her usual line of defense, and one that I sometimes find hard to swallow. I let it go and tried to move on, because I felt badly.  “I’ll make you a sandwich, and then you can head back to bed,” I said. “Ok,” she said brightly as the storm passed.

As Mom ambled  upstairs later, a thought struck me. Often when I think that I am tired of the caregiver routine, that is really not the case.

What I am tired of is feeling badly.


Bacon Makes It Better — (With Apologies to Margie)

Mom’s functioning and mood are both on a downswing today. My stress level is up. Fortunately a kind friend is going to bring me lunch from a nearby deli. I am on a diet and my friend is a vegetarian. Nevertheless I asked for a wrap laden with bacon and Russian dressing. I feel badly about my decision. But not badly enough to change my mind. Luckily Margie doesn’t mind. And she’s even bringing chips.

“What to NOT Bring on Vacation” — Brought to You by Your Local Sponsors

“For once, don’t overthink this,” I reminded myself as I prepared for our family trip to Maine. But I knew I would. I always do.

In my defense, my family NEVER traveled. Not one vacation, ever.  My father was actually anti-vacation. He felt that he had done all the traveling he needed for a lifetime. Ironically, he had fit it all into the four years he served on the front lines under General Patton. He’d had a horrific time of it, and refused to speak about his service — except to say that I should never bother traveling to Europe because “there’s nothing to see there.”

Before I embarked on my first real extended trip — with my high school BFFs at the age of twenty three — my father finished his usual cautionary speech to the four of us with the now-famous line “I don’t know why you are driving all the way to Maine when you could see the same things in Keansburg.”

Day trips to Keansburg, New Jersey were one of the highlights of my growing-up years, and in truth I am not bitter about not traveling anywhere overnight.  I would be lying, however, if I said that I did not impact my ability to enjoy time away as an adult.

The recent trip to Maine was shaping up to be no exception. Before the trip, I was stressed about logistics and accommodations (in a rare display of  bravado, I had booked the motel). During the trip, I was stressed about the usual nonsense — Is everyone having a good time? How will we pay for all of this? Why can’t I relax?

The vacation was humming along pretty nicely but I was not. Unable to unwind, I was apparently demanding and needy at the local coffee shop we hit on our first day in Bar Harbor — to the point where a woman sitting nearby asked “Where are you FROM?”

Duly chastened (and with John suitably embarrassed) we decided to try a different coffee shop the next day. The venue had changed, but I had not. “I’ll be back,” I announced to the cashier after collecting breakfast for the family. “Don’t threaten me,” he said only half-kidding.

The following day, our friends Dan and Carol suggested getting together for an afternoon beer after a strenuous hike. My anti-relaxation instincts immediately kicked in. “An afternoon beer or two might make me tired,” I thought. “Will I be OK for dinner later?” Or, “Won’t the calories in that beer undo all the good exercise I did on the hike?”

John saw the look on my face and overruled me. He’s been fortunate enough to take many vacations with his family, and he “gets” this whole relaxation thing.

Carol and Dan arrived and we decided to sit at a picnic table near our room. We had just begun our conversation when a man about our age who had been gardening started heading our way on a golf cart. I expected that he would pass us, but instead he stopped directly in front of our table.

“You folks are breaking one of the RULES,” he informed us. I blanched. Our motel was immaculate inside and out, but there were many posted rules. Was there a”no beer on the picnic table” rule? For a split-second I thought I was going to pass out, and I decided that if there was an issue I would put the blame on John.

Fortunately he followed with, “You always offer a beer to the landscaper” and then joined our conversation as though he had known us forever. Sprinkled in with his jokes and riddles were stories about  how he and his wife had bought the motel decades ago, improvements they had made, and some of his own vacation experiences. We found him funny, worldly and wise.

And then near the end of the conversation he handed me a gift.

“When you go on vacation, you should leave your brain at home,” he announced. Everyone else nodded but I must have looked shocked because he assumed that I hadn’t heard him. “I mean, how can you have a good time when you’re worrying about things you don’t need to?” he said, looking directly at me.

Of course! Letting his words sink in, I visualized my puny brain at home. There it was, sitting at my kitchen table and  drinking coffee and  worrying about what was happening in town and how mom was faring at the rehabilitation center and whether the cat was depressed without us and what sort of emails I was receiving and what was happening on Facebook and whether people would be mad at me for ignoring them while I was away.  My “home-based” brain was handling it all, and I took a deep breath while a weight lifted from my shoulders. I no longer felt stressed. I felt blessed.

As our host said his goodbyes and rode away, I thought about what my friend Jamie would describe as an  “AHA” moment. Sometimes you find them in books. Sometimes you find them through prayer or meditation.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky,  they come rolling right up to you on a golf cart.




Birds of a Feather

I recently had a conversation with a  longtime friend whose caregiver situation is similar to mine. I was telling her that caring for my mom often leaves me feeling “closed off” to the rest of the world — and to my relief she understood completely. “I’ve been sort of binge-watching the movie ‘Grey Gardens’ (about an eccentric  mother and daughter who live alone in a dilapidated mansion) and really relating to it,” I confessed. My friend was momentarily at a loss for words and began to laugh. “No … wait … no … just … you need to cut that out,”  she replied. Thank goodness for kind and wise friends.

20/20 Hindsight

My monthly book group met during evenings this summer on the Sea Bright beach. It was a great idea and enjoyed by all. A few weeks ago, I was able to fit in some late afternoon beach time and dinner out on my own before arriving for our August meeting. Craving some time for reflection, I decided to head down to the Windmill restaurant across the street from Monmouth Bluffs — formerly the Diplomat Apartments, where my parents used to live and we were frequent visitors.

My Dad passed away 2013, and it was only last summer that I was mentally up for a stroll along the boardwalk leading from my parents’ former apartment to nearby Pier Village. This summer I took it a step further. I convinced my husband John  that we should eat dinner with a view from atop the Windmill’s roof. We were literally yards away from my parents’ former apartment, but neither of us felt overwhelmingly sad. Instead we talked about happy memories and fun times spent there. The evening ended on a good note, as we strolled the boardwalk in front of Monmouth Bluffs and noted the many nice features that had been added.

Sitting on the Windmill's roof affords a beautiful view of Monmouth Bluffs and the ocean beyond. My parents' apartment was in the building on the right.
Sitting on the Windmill’s roof affords a beautiful view of Monmouth Bluffs and the ocean beyond.


Eating the requisite chili cheese dog and fries by myself that evening a few weeks later was a totally different experience. I stared at the path leading to my parents’ apartment, and found myself wondering why I didn’t know how deeply I should have cherished the times I had spent there. We’d had a lot of laughs, for sure, but what I recalled  the most and with regret was that I was always preoccupied with other events and worries. Why am I sitting here watching “Dancing with the Stars” when I should be home doing housework? Why am I letting the kids walk the boardwalk and collect sea glass with my parents and my Aunt Millie when they should be working on the school project that will soon be due? Why is my Mom taking so long to food shop, and will I be home in time to cook my own dinner?  How can I politely refuse my father’s usual offer of another “cuppa” tea and a cookie when it is a work night and I want to be in bed by 10? I realized, as I looked across the street at the apartment and ocean beyond, that I had spent a lot of  time thinking that I should be elsewhere instead of cherishing my parents’ company.  The word “begrudgingly” came to mind and I felt ashamed.

Worries have a way of tricking you into thinking that if you concentrate enough attention on them they will go away; then you will finally have time to really appreciate the good things in life. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Time tricked me too, by leading me to believe that somehow my Dad would be around forever and my parents could always be found alternately bickering and laughing in that sunny apartment.  And although I convinced myself that my only role in their care needed to be trips to the supermarket and the doctor  — and that I was a good daughter for doing it — my mother was in fact doing the “heavy lifting” in caring for my dad. She just never complained about it, and frankly I never asked about her day to day routine. My mother did everything she could to manage without asking me for much. And when she did ask, or when things went wrong and I needed to fix them, I was sometimes resentful although I tried my best not to show it. That evening at the Windmill,  I forced myself to  reflect on the fact that she was providing 24/7 care for my Dad while experiencing the first symptoms of dementia — although no one realized it at the time. I realized with shock that I had been living in a fool’s paradise.

After finishing dinner, I made my way to Sea Bright beach for the book group meeting. My head was spinning, and my friend Jeanne was the first book group member I saw when  I arrived. Knowing of my plan to grab some dinner by myself, she asked where I had eaten. When I answered, she thoughtfully asked whether it had gone well or if the experience had made me sad.

“No, it didn’t make me feel sad,” I answered confidently. Because sad was honestly not the first word that had come to mind when I recalled my time in the “old” neighborhood. Jeanne looked relieved.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that what I ended up feeling was foolish. Incredibly foolish.


Giving Thanks

Since we moved my mom in over two years ago, John and I are often limited to spending just a few hours together outside of the house. In some situations, we just have to suck it up (i.e., my not being able to travel to Spain with John to visit our daughter Veronica during a semester abroad.) In others, we really need to figure it out and ask for help.

My son Greg was ready and willing to accompany John for Veronica’s recent move-in day at college. But then a scheduling conflict came up — Greg had an on-line class from 5:30 until 7 on moving day. I was more than happy at the prospect of having to join him, truth be told. So, with fingers crossed, I asked my neighbor if she could give mom dinner and make sure the television was tuned to channel 7 before she left. “Will do, I am always happy to spend time with your mom” she replied immediately. I was so relieved and grateful.

Moving day went as most do for college students, with the challenges (putting together an Ikea bed) and the benefits (catching up with my daughter’s roommates and friends, enjoying dinner out with her before heading back).

My daughter thanked us both with a hug, and of course I teared up a bit. We will miss her, but it was more than that. I felt that she was owed the bigger thanks.

Both of our children, now young adults, arrived home at the end of their semesters looking for the peace and quiet and normalcy that is a requirement for regrouping. They found anything else but. It was a challenging summer, to say the least. Veronica especially spent nights enduring interrupted sleep (her bedroom is next to mom’s — in this case “location, location, location” did NOT work in her favor). Mom rustles around quite a bit at night — when ironically her brain is most active. Meanwhile Veronica was trying to rest up for double shifts at the restaurant where she is a server.

This summer, all of us found ourselves a bit worn out by it all. But while John and I retreated a bit further into ourselves, Greg and Veronica did the opposite. They never missed a chance to kid around with Mom (which she really enjoys), and laugh with her when something funny occurred (it often does). They watched “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” with her and called out answers much to Mom’s amusement and pride. They were kind and considerate, always. And on the day before she left, and the morning of, Veronica told her Grammy “I love you, and I’ll miss you” more times than I could count. (Because yes Grammy forgets everything).

They say that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I used to think that it meant that they were smart enough to leave the situation. Now I realize that “get going” means that they “get going” — to work at supporting those who need it. Sure, it takes a village. And when that village is under your roof — and also right next door — you really should consider yourself to be very fortunate.