All posts by Mary Ann Kampfe

Melanie and Sonny Save the Day

It hadn’t started out as the best of days. I’d had a run-in at the local Foodtown with a man who complained when I’d left my cart “parked” too close to the center of the aisle while I searched for a greeting hard. “It’s always women who do this,” he said loudly after he banged into my cart and passed me huffily. “You need to go home and crawl back into your cave,” I answered instructively. At first I was surprised by my chutzpah, then I was relieved that the man had continued walking without a retort. Perhaps I had acted unwisely or even unkindly, but here’s the thing I told myself:  Once you have been turned inside out by life events — instructed, as it were — there really is no turning back. I find myself so much less willing to take other people’s you-know-what. I tried to shake the incident off and keep moving quickly, as I wanted to be on my way to visit Mom at the nursing home before traffic got hairy at 3 p.m. My sweet friend Di had sent me a Halloween card for Mom, and I was excited about delivering it.

Mom loved her Halloween card and the entertainment.

Perhaps because of my negative encounter during my shopping trip, I felt more drained than usual. Since it is so hard to navigate my way to and through the nursing home while carrying two cups of coffee, I usually only buy just one and deliver it to Mom. But I was sorely in need of some caffeine, so I ordered a pumpkin-flavored brew for myself.  I ended up, of course, with the dreaded and unwieldy cardboard tray. Some of my precious pumpkin coffee — dang it — spilled out as I wrestled the tray into the car. Then I arrived at the nursing home. The rain, which had begun as just a mist, began in earnest as I made my way down the path to the lobby door. “Could this day get any worse?” I thought. And then it did. As it turns out, Mom was in an activity. Usually, that is my cue to return any coffee to the car until the activity is over and we are both back in the upstairs Day Room. It’s just more manageable that way. But man, I really needed that coffee. And so, cardboard tray in hand, I entered the large dining room on the first floor not knowing what to expect. I was hoping for Bingo. What I got was Melanie and Sonny.

Melanie and Sonny were making their first visit to Mom’s nursing home to provide entertainment. I found a spot near Mom and sit down as quickly and unobtrusively as I could, as one thing was obvious as soon as I arrived — Melanie and Sonny were magnificently talented singers and guitarists,  and everyone was enjoying their performance. They were delivering  a rollicking country tune when I arrived. I thanked my lucky stars that I had apparently joined the crowd near the beginning of the show, as Melanie and Sonny went on to cover a wide range of songs. All of them were uniformly spectacular. Their version of “Here Comes the Sun” was especially beautiful and meaningful, and took me worlds away from the recent unpleasantness I had experienced and been a part of. I looked at the faces around me, and everyone seemed to be getting lost in the performance. Toes tapped, lips mouthed lyrics, eyes closed as memories flooded in. People who thought that perhaps they could never feel “cool” again suddenly did. Then Melanie performed a love song she had written, her plaintive and gorgeous voice displaying the hope and promise of eternal commitment to someone irreplaceable. The applause afterward was so enthusiastic that she blushed.

It struck me that Melanie and Sonny were pouring their hearts into the performance. I had to remind myself that we were in a nursing home dining room, because it may as well have been the stage at Madison Square Garden. When I spoke with Melanie and Sonny after the performance, I learned that they usually take the stage at venues in Ocean County. They told me about local eateries, along with cancer care centers where they play for patients and their families. It was clear to me that Melanie and Sonny were equally excited about both types of gigs, and saw no difference between the two venues. I have no doubt that, just as they had at the nursing home, Melanie and Sonny continually deliver “the goods” no matter where they find themselves playing. They were, in a word, inspirational.

My spirits lifted significantly, I tackled the rest of my long day with a better attitude and a reminder to be charitable, always. Even at the Foodtown. Even if it kills me.

I was too shy to ask for  a photo of Melanie and Sonny (shocking, I know), but you can find them on Facebook. They are good people. I know from experience, having heard an elderly wheelchair-bound resident ask them for a business card after the performance.

“Of course, here you go,” Sonny said, treating the resident as though she were a music industry VIP.

Like I said. Inspirational.

Bedazzled

I knew that it was going to be “one of those days.” For starters, I had to wake up early and be at the nursing home by 9 to bring Mom to the doctor for her appointment. This made no sense to me, as my Mom’s doctor is the visiting physician for the nursing home. But my phone conversation a week earlier with an assistant at his office had confirmed the fact that yes, I needed to bring her there.

This would require a lot of what my Mom used to call “rigamarole” involving sign-offs, paperwork, shifting Mom from one wheelchair to another, and answering Mom’s questions. As soon as I saw her, I could tell that Mom was tired. This meant that I had to be a lot more careful and watchful when moving her from place to place. But it also meant that she would want to close her eyes in the car, resulting in less questions; and maybe she would not want to go out for the usual cup of coffee and donut after the doctor’s visit. I almost hoped she wouldn’t. By 9:30 that morning, I was feeling stressed and exhausted. Mom was looking less like a person of interest and more like just another chore.

As it turns out, there had been a miscommunication. Mom’s doctor could have simply seen her in the nursing home. I felt my blood pressure rise, but then I was treated to one of my favorite sights — Mom’s doctor grasping both of her hands in his at the end of the visit, telling her that she was doing wonderfully and everything had checked out fine. Mom’s doctor communicates directly with Mom after every exam, holding her hands in just that manner. I never tire of seeing this happen, and it always makes my heart melt.

And so I left the office with Mom in a fairly good frame of mind, and was more open to a stop for coffee.

“Would you like to get a cup of coffee, Mom?”

“Well, you like coffee, right?”

I had to smile. No one returns a volley like Mom.

“Yes, I do! Let’s get some!”

We made our way to the Dunkin Donuts in nearby Red Bank, and our journey was not without its glitches. Mom tries to be helpful, but often ends up being a wrench in the works. I try to be even-keeled, but my mood shifts like the wind. If prizes were awarded for trying hard, Mom and I would be winners. But they’re not, so .. well.. there we were.

“Ugh, ugh, oh no,” Mom said as I placed her in the transport chair for the ride into the donut shop. “Am I hurting you?” I asked crankily, realizing that I needed that third morning cup of coffee more than I had expected to. “No, I feel badly for you!” she said.  “OK well you’re not helping me by making those noises,” I said. “Ok, sorry” she said and we sailed in with the help of all the John Q. Publics who always hold the doors open for us (God bless them).

I deposited Mom at a table with a view (of highway 35, but hey whatever) and announced that we should split a donut. My mood had shifted to the dark side once again. “That’s fine,” Mom said. We usually get a donut each, but at this point  I was frankly looking to get this whole thing over with and get Mom safely back into the home. Besides, I’m trying to cut down on my sugar intake (why that should affect my poor Mom, I can’t tell you. I haven’t a clue.) But when I walked up to the counter, I saw the most beautiful sight; it was a tray of jelly donuts with a layer of creamy white icing and a colorful, sort of windmill-like spinner on top of that. I know it sounds crazy, but the sight of those donuts lightened my mood. I returned to the table and Mom said, “So, we’re splitting a donut?”

I could hear the disappointment in her voice, and I was happy to tell her otherwise. “Oooh, that’s pretty!” she said happily when she saw my donut. I could tell that she was thrilled to have her own favorite, the Boston crème, all to herself.  I also realized that I had almost been stingy not only with the donuts, but with my time. After that I relaxed, and Mom and I had a great conversation and lots of laughs courtesy of our chance encounter with my former supervisor (Mom afterwards –“Ooh, he’s handsome — did you say his name was Howard Stern?”) and a woman who sat nearby wearing an overly bedazzled outfit (“Who is that?” “I don’t know, Mom!” “Hmmm,” Mom said, eyebrows raised in disapproval as though she was placed in charge of setting society’s limits on how much of your attire you are allowed to bedazzle).

I returned Mom back to her facility with the usual fanfare. There is something about Mom that causes a flutter of activity around her, and much admiration. It was something I’d forgotten when she lived with me. And, frankly, I’d forgotten about it quite often up until yesterday.

So I guess my miscommunication with the doctor’s office and my outing with Mom was one of those things that was meant to happen. It was a timely reminder that Mom is not a burden or a chore or someone to be dealt with and then forgotten about. She is a bright light in a dark forest, a polarizing force that causes you to laugh out loud and not care that you are spitting out bits of your windmill-festooned donut. She helps you forget your troubles, while at the same time encouraging you to believe that whatever it is that has been weighing on your mind is either best forgotten or going to get better. Her mere presence causes you to feel enclosed in beauty and joy and promise.

She is, in a word, bedazzling.

 

Funny Lady

It is taking a while for John and I to wrap our heads around the fact that Mom is in a nursing home. For Mom, not so much. She is thriving in her new environment. This is partly due to luck — the place suits her fine — and her faith, as in “This is where I belong.”

Truthfully the atmosphere is indeed a fun and lively one. “There’s always something happening here,” Mom said with a smile and a shrug during a recent visit. Due to poor planning on my part, I had arrived just before dinner did. I found Mom sitting alone at a table in the dayroom, taking her daily siesta. She was pleased to see me, but there was some confusion on our part about whether Mom heads downstairs to the dining room for dinner or stays in the day room. As usual, one of Mom’s aides managed to read our thoughts. “Your Mom stays in the day room for dinner, and goes downstairs for lunch,” she said, which made perfect sense. Mom is social but in small doses. She enjoys her alone time, which — in retrospect — she could only get while in bed at my house. I am a hoverer of the highest order. By contrast, the tall and pretty aide grabbing the dinner trays while doing a million other things is not a hoverer. She is what you would call “happy go lucky” and I rarely see her without a smile on her face. “She is so patient,” Mom said, and I concurred.

“We love your mom, she’s such a funny lady!” the aide said as she placed Mom’s tray on the table. I nodded, but I was a bit surprised. In all honesty, I rarely think of my Mom as funny. Sturdy, pretty, meticulous, strong-willed, and loving for sure. But funny? Dad was the funny one, the King of the One-Liners. Mom’s humor is unintentional and most often self-deprecating. And for that reason alone, I never really considered Mom to be very funny. It’s on the list of adjectives, for sure, but not at the top.

“Here you go, Mommie Dearest,” I said as I stirred milk and sugar into Mom’s coffee. It’s one of our many inside jokes, but I realized that I had spoken too loudly when the aide’s head whipped around. “Oh no, not her, she’s no Mommie Dearest!” the aide  said, and I could see a questioning smile on her face. “It’s from one of our favorite movies,” I explained. We then engaged in a conversation that basically recounted the litany of great movies starring Bette Davis and/or Joan Crawford — many of which the aide had seen with her own grandmother. It was a reminder of how the simplest joys can enrich our lives and inform our perspectives. My mind turned to the many special — and, in retrospect, fleeting — moments I had shared with my Grandma and then my Mom while watching TV. I am embarrassed to admit that “The Bachelorette” was the first thing that came to my mind. It was not one of Mom’s favorite shows by any stretch, but I happen to like it.

“Ma, are you watching ‘The Bachelorette’?” I asked. Mom looked a bit confused, so I offered a prompt. “You know, the one where the lady is looking for a husband?”

Mom’s eyes brightened. “Oh yeah, I think so.” And then she frowned. “Did she get one yet?” she asked impatiently, displaying her apparent aggravation with the whole shebang. I had to laugh, and she did too.

It was a timely reminder that funny is funny, whether the humor is intentional or not.

And also that, at the age of  90, you are bound to have little patience for “the process.” So go get that man already, Rachel! Mommie Dearest is counting on you.

After the Storm

Besides the oft-maligned month of March, what else “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”?

Me, apparently.

And who, may I ask, comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion?

I think you can venture a guess.

Shortly after my Mom moved in, a neighborhood acquaintance named Joe was walking past the house as he often does with his adorable beagle, Charlie Brown.  I told Joe about my Mom living with us, and he nodded his head knowingly. “My mother-in-law lived with us for twenty years,” he said, as my jaw fell. I shouldn’t have been that surprised, really. Joe is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. We shared a few lines of conversation and then Charlie began tugging, impatient to get to the tree down the block. Joe started to walk again, then held Charlie back for just a moment.

“Promise me something,” he said. “Promise me that when it gets to be too much for you, you’ll do what my wife and I did and get your mother into a good nursing home. And when you do, you can tell yourself that ‘Joe from down the street says it’s OK.’ Because it will be, really.”

“OK, Joe,” I agreed readily, partly to free Charlie from waiting. At the time, I knew that Joe had given me an incredible gift. And I had every confidence time that I would never feel compelled to open it.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, don’t you?

Based on past history, I have nothing against nursing homes, AKA rehabilitation facilities. My Grandma Anna had entered one when her need for care exceeded what Mom was able to provide. My Mom’s siblings had stepped in and done what a devoted family does best – they worked to craft a better situation for their Mom and for their sister. The three of them did their research, and my Uncle Gabe discovered a beautiful facility in Andover, New Jersey. It was what my father would call a “hike” – over an hour from our home. But there was no denying that this place was worth the trip. Each time we visited we were treated to the sight of nurses and aides in their starched pink and white uniforms treating my Grandma like a queen. They greeted us warmly and treated Grandma with reverence. I recall my mother crying after we returned to the car following our first visit to Grandma in Andover. It took me a minute or two to realize, to my relief, that they were tears of gratitude.

Having had that experience, I certainly had no problem reassuring people who had either placed their parent in a nursing home or were thinking seriously about taking that step.

“Nursing homes exist for a reason,” I said. At the time I believed I was being sincere. But now, with my own situation beginning to unravel, I had to wonder. Mom and I were, as the saying goes, “getting on one another’s last nerve.” I was tired and short-tempered. Mom was somewhat demanding. We snapped at one another, and had moments of simmering silence. We’d had this sort of thing occur once before, when I had returned home after graduating from college. I’d had my sights set on the future, and Mom was doing her level best to keep me in the past. At that time, neither of us knew how to “fix” the problem. It was, as I recall, a miserable spot in time. Now we were back in that miserable place, both of us once again unwilling or unable to back down. I was, quite frankly, scared to death. I told myself that I could hold on until my daughter’s own college graduation weekend, when Mom would be in a nearby nursing facility for a few days of respite care.

“We just need a break from one another,” is what I told myself at the time.

Ever the good sport, Mom went willingly into respite care the day before we were to leave for my daughter’s graduation. She’d been to this nursing facility before, and each time we’d had a seamless transition: Mom goes into the “home”; Mom stays for a few days; we pick her up; we chat in the car on the way home, and are relieved to discover that once again she has enjoyed the food and the activities. But when asked, usually by John, Mom agrees readily that YES she is very happy to be coming home. She misses her cat. She misses her bed. She misses watching “Jepidy” with us.

But this time, during this visit, both Mom and I were in for a surprise.

On my end, I embarked on the three-day trip to Loyola University in Maryland feeling almost euphoric. I figured that most likely this was stemming from the fact that I had brushed aside recent suggestions from close friends that perhaps Mom’s care was “getting beyond me.”  A few had even suggested that I leave Mom in the facility after respite care had ended, for a smoother transition. “Why bring her home, only to bring her back in again?” they said. That statement gave me pause, I will admit. I was worried about Mom falling again in my home — as she’d done a few weeks before, when I turned my back and she tumbled onto the floor while trying to take off one of her knee-high stockings. She was unhurt, but I was badly shaken. “Knee highs are BANNED from the kingdom!” I yelled at her, only half-joking. Yes, things were heading a bit downhill. But I was determined to see this through. “Nope, I’ve got this,” I told all of my well-meaning advisors. And I managed to convince myself that I believed it. If Mom was Daisy-Head Maisie’s egg, I reasoned, then I was Horton.

But here is what happened. As it turns out, my husband and I had booked ourselves into a pet-friendly hotel outside of Baltimore for the duration of graduation weekend. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I am allergic to dog hair. I will admit that, on most other occasions, a misstep of this magnitude would have caused me to have a meltdown. But this weekend was about my daughter and her achievements. I wasn’t going to let this “surprise” get me down. As it turned out, my positive attitude served me well.

Sure, my eyes looked a bit puffy in some of the photographs taken the first day of our stay. But that didn’t matter so much when I discovered a very pleasant surprise. As it turned out, a convention and exhibition for the owners of Borzois – also known as Russian Wolfhounds — was being held at our hotel.

I consider Borzois to be the most beautiful animal on the planet. They have very lush coats so I could never own one. But I just adore their sweet faces and regal bearing and gentle nature. We encountered these beautiful animals around every corner as we walked through the hotel. Borzois here. Borzois there. Borzois everywhere.

The “weekend of the Borzois” put me in a whimsical frame of mind. I relaxed more than I had in a long while, and felt ready for anything. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a revelation.

The revelation was this – that all of the people surrounding the Borzois, from owners to groomers to handlers to helpers, had smiles on their faces pretty much 24/7. Each of them had the glow of passion. They were completely absorbed in their animals and the care they required. I found myself admiring their apparently selfless devotion. And I had to face a sobering reality.

I had lost my passion for caring for Mom. I was no longer devoted to her. My will to persevere had been clouding the issue. But now my vision was clear, and this is what I saw.

Me sighing loudly each morning and surely making Mom feel badly as I entered her room, dreading the daily routine – which had once seemed like a nice “time out” from my former life, but which had now become an almost unbearable burden.

Mom getting upset with me because I refused to bring her downstairs on a day when I had a ton of work to do and a friend coming over for coffee.

Me getting incensed when Mom complained that the water was too hot or too cold during a bath, and me telling Mom that if she would “JUST STOP COMPLAINING, the whole blasted process would go a lot faster.”

Mom pitching forward and stumbling as I helped her through the hallway and up or down the stairs, and me feeling like she was going to end up giving me a heart attack – and, even worse, me telling her so.

Here is the bottom line.

There were increasingly more days when I wished Mom could be elsewhere. Even worse, I suspected that she was feeling the same way.

I told my husband John about my revelation the night before we were to head back to New Jersey.

“You’re not a health care professional, and this may be too much for you,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.”

I almost hugged him for his wisdom. On the ride home, I thought seriously about taking the “smooth transition” advice I had been given. I thought about not having to fetch Mom’s meals or supervise while she brushed her teeth. I thought about the freedom I would have, and how exhilarating it would feel.

But once I returned home and stepped into my house – soon to be a Mom-free zone – I got cold feet. There was Mom’s spot on the sofa, with the blanket I had crocheted for her folded carefully over it. There was “her” cat, snoozing on her bed and awaiting her arrival. There were her English muffins on the kitchen counter, just waiting to be toasted and buttered imperfectly by me and greatly appreciated by her. The relief I felt on the ride home turned to shame. I felt a strange sensation, and realized I was beginning to panic. I was scheduled to pick Mom up the following day!

I started grasping at straws, hoping that I would get some sort of sign to point me in the right direction. I made myself some extra-strong coffee and cried into the mug when I realized it said “World’s Greatest Grandma” on it. When I prayed for an answer, it ended up being this — I didn’t want to give up so easily. I didn’t want to rip off the bandage. I wasn’t ready. I needed to buy some time. I immediately arranged for Mom to stay in the nursing facility for a few more days so I could have more time to come to a decision. John agreed.  “It’s the best plan,” he said. “It will let us really think hard about what we want to do.”

Of course I dreaded what I needed do the next morning, which was to head right over to the nursing home and tell Mom that she would be there a bit longer than expected.

I walked with trepidation into the common room where Mom sat in her wheelchair. She was dressed in her black skirt and emerald green blouse, her hair combed and her cheeks pink with makeup. I flushed with shame when I realized that for the past few months I had hidden Mom’s makeup bag in a back corner of her closet. I had become unwilling to apply her blush and powder and lipstick as she had every day of her life.

“Hi!” Mom said when I stood in front of her. She looked absolutely regal and radiant. I spotted her aide sitting at a nearby window, beaming her approval. “She looks beautiful,” I said, and the three of us smiled at one another. I was aware that I was trying to buy time. I finally sat down and prepared to justify my selfish decision to my beautiful mother.

Mom beat me to the punch. “Mary Ann, I need to stay here,” she said. I was stunned. Doubting my Mom’s ability to make this sort of decision on her own – once again, underestimating her due to her advanced age and dementia – I countered with this question.

“Who told you that?”

“No one told me anything,” Mom said. “You can’t take care of me anymore. It’s too much. It’s time. And I’m happy here.”

We sat there and faced one another like two soldiers who had done their best to win a battle and then had to concede defeat. Or was it defeat? Mom, with her infinite wisdom and strength and innate kindness, was making it feel like a victory. I was breathless with admiration. In her brown-grey eyes, I saw an acceptance that was almost profound in its purity.

And then, both resigned to and emboldened by Mom’s decision, I suddenly felt energized. I asked Mom a quick succession of questions, lowering my voice while trying to fight back tears.

“How’s the food?”

“Good!”

“Do you like the nurses?”

“Yes!”

“Are you doing activities?”

“I think so! I can’t remember.”

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Yes … well off and on, just like at home.”

The word “home” stopped me in my tracks. How could Mom not want to come home? Of course she wanted to come home. The one question I wanted to ask Mom that day but didn’t dare was “Won’t you miss our home?” Because I both knew the answer and dreaded thinking about it. Of course she would miss us. She would miss her pretty room. She would miss looking out of her window at our garden. She would miss petting the cat. She would miss the comings-and-goings of the kids. She would miss her life as the woman who was so proud and grateful that her daughter and son-in-law wanted her under their roof.

But she knew what needed to happen, and she was being the bigger person by insisting on it. About a month before, my high school “besties” had gently questioned my belief that my mother would only end up in a nursing home after a fall in my home or a serious illness. I tried to hold my ground, as I had always visualized Mom and me staying together under the same roof for as long as we could – “Side by Side,” as in the song she used to sing so often during my childhood.

“This is how the world ends,” said my ever-wise friend Diane, quoting from the poet T.S. Eliot. “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

For weeks I wondered how the “world” would end for Mom and me. Now I had my answer. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But with a roar.

I walked out of the nursing home that day with my head held high, filled with gratitude. Because no matter what people said when I told them the “big news” – that Mom would be staying in a home – I could counter by saying “Mom wanted it this way.” I didn’t have the courage to open the gift Joe had given me so long ago. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. I had Mom to do it for me.

A week after Mom moved in to the nursing home, John and I arrived for one of our evening visits. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Mom was in the common room seated with two other ladies – I’ll call them Dotty and Pat — who offered us polite “hellos.” It is obvious to us that Mom is well-loved by everyone in her facility, just as my Grandma Anna had been in hers. I was so happy to see Mom. I miss her. I miss her like crazy. I never expected, although I should have, that when Mom moved out she would take the peaceful “Josephine Zone” with her. “Now I have to drive fifteen minutes each way to bask in the ‘Zone,’” I half-joked recently to a friend.

“How was your day, ladies?” John asked. Mom smirked as Dotty and Pat giggled. John is always a hit with the ladies, as Mom and I had often joked.  She and I exchanged a conspiratorial glance. John loves an audience, and we could already tell that he was in rare form.

“Did you have your Memorial Day BBQ?” he continued.

“I don’t know, did we?” Dotty answered, looking at the others questioningly. Pat and my mom shrugged and smiled, which compelled John – who truly should have been a news anchor – to read the entire BBQ menu off of a nearby flyer.

“Well it says here that you had BBQ pork and creamed corn and salad and cake,” John announced. The ladies were silent, and I held my breath. John and I both enjoy bantering with my Mom and her sister Millie, but I worried that maybe with these Pat and Dotty – who were pretty much strangers to him – he may have crossed the line.

There was silence for a few seconds, and then Dotty spoke up.

“Well, if you say so!” she said, and we all laughed. As John and I left that evening, I glanced back at Mom. She looked relaxed and happy and well-cared for, and I noticed that Dotty was wheeling her chair closer to Mom. There they sat as we left them, side by side.

 

 

 

 

 

After the Storm

Besides the oft-maligned month of March, what else “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”?

Me, apparently.

And who, may I ask, comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion?

I think you can venture a guess.

Shortly after my Mom moved in, a neighborhood acquaintance named Joe was walking past the house as he often does with his adorable beagle, Charlie Brown.  I told Joe about my Mom living with us, and he nodded his head knowingly. “My mother-in-law lived with us for twenty years,” he said, as my jaw fell. I shouldn’t have been that surprised, really. Joe is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. We shared a few lines of conversation and then Charlie began tugging, impatient to get to the tree down the block. Joe started to walk again, then held Charlie back for just a moment.

“Promise me something,” he said. “Promise me that when it gets to be too much for you, you’ll do what my wife and I did and get your mother into a good nursing home. And when you do, you can tell yourself that ‘Joe from down the street says it’s OK.’ Because it will be, really.”

“OK, Joe,” I agreed readily, partly to free Charlie from waiting. At the time, I knew that Joe had given me an incredible gift. And I had every confidence time that I would never feel compelled to open it.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, don’t you?

Based on past history, I have nothing against nursing homes, AKA rehabilitation facilities. My Grandma Anna had entered one when her need for care exceeded what Mom was able to provide. My Mom’s siblings had stepped in and done what a devoted family does best – they worked to craft a better situation for their Mom and for their sister. The three of them did their research, and my Uncle Gabe discovered a beautiful facility in Andover, New Jersey. It was what my father would call a “hike” – over an hour from our home. But there was no denying that this place was worth the trip. Each time we visited we were treated to the sight of nurses and aides in their starched pink and white uniforms treating my Grandma like a queen. They greeted us warmly and treated Grandma with reverence. I recall my mother crying after we returned to the car following our first visit to Grandma in Andover. It took me a minute or two to realize, to my relief, that they were tears of gratitude.

Having had that experience, I certainly had no problem reassuring people who had either placed their parent in a nursing home or were thinking seriously about taking that step.

“Nursing homes exist for a reason,” I said. At the time I believed I was being sincere. But now, with my own situation beginning to unravel, I had to wonder. Mom and I were, as the saying goes, “getting on one another’s last nerve.” I was tired and short-tempered. Mom was somewhat demanding. We snapped at one another, and had moments of simmering silence. We’d had this sort of thing occur once before, when I had returned home after graduating from college. I’d had my sights set on the future, and Mom was doing her level best to keep me in the past. At that time, neither of us knew how to “fix” the problem. It was, as I recall, a miserable spot in time. Now we were back in that miserable place, both of us once again unwilling or unable to back down. I was, quite frankly, scared to death. I told myself that I could hold on until my daughter’s own college graduation weekend, when Mom would be in a nearby nursing facility for a few days of respite care.

“We just need a break from one another,” is what I told myself at the time.

Ever the good sport, Mom went willingly into a local nursing home for respite care the day before we were to leave for my daughter’s graduation. She’d been to this facility before, and each time we’d had a seamless transition: Mom goes into the “home”; Mom stays for a few days; we pick her up; we chat in the car on the way home, and are relieved to discover that once again she has enjoyed the food and the activities. But when asked, usually by John, Mom agrees readily that YES she is very happy to be coming home. She misses her cat. She misses her bed. She misses watching “Jepidy” with us.

But this time, during this visit, both Mom and I were in for a surprise.

On my end, I embarked on the three-day trip to Loyola University in Maryland feeling almost euphoric. I figured that most likely this was stemming from the fact that I had brushed aside recent suggestions from close friends that perhaps Mom’s care was “getting beyond me.”  A few had even suggested that I leave Mom in the facility after respite care had ended, for a smoother transition. “Why bring her home, only to bring her back in again?” they said. That statement gave me pause, I will admit. I was worried about Mom falling again in my home — as she’d done a few weeks before, when I turned my back and she tumbled onto the floor while trying to take off one of her knee-high stockings. She was unhurt, but I was badly shaken. “Knee highs are BANNED from the kingdom!” I yelled at her, only half-joking. Yes, things were heading a bit downhill. But I was determined to see this through. “Nope, I’ve got this,” I told all of my well-meaning advisors. And I managed to convince myself that I believed it. If Mom was Daisy-Head Maisie’s egg, I reasoned, then I was Horton.

But here is what happened. As it turns out, my husband and I had booked ourselves into a pet-friendly hotel outside of Baltimore for the duration of graduation weekend. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I am allergic to dog hair. I will admit that, on most other occasions, a misstep of this magnitude would have caused me to have a meltdown. But this weekend was about my daughter and her achievements. I wasn’t going to let this “surprise” get me down. As it turned out, my positive attitude served me well.

Sure, my eyes looked a bit puffy in some of the photographs taken the first day of our stay. But that didn’t matter so much when I discovered a very pleasant surprise. As it turned out, a convention and exhibition for the owners of Borzois – also known as Russian Wolfhounds — was being held at our hotel.

I consider Borzois to be the most beautiful animal on the planet. They have very lush coats so I could never own one. But I just adore their sweet faces and regal bearing and gentle nature. We encountered these beautiful animals around every corner as we walked through the hotel. Borzois here. Borzois there. Borzois everywhere.

The “weekend of the Borzois” put me in a whimsical frame of mind. I relaxed more than I had in a long while, and felt ready for anything. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a revelation.

The revelation was this – that all of the people surrounding the Borzois, from owners to groomers to handlers to helpers, had smiles on their faces pretty much 24/7. Each of them had the glow of passion. They were completely absorbed in their animals and the care they required. I found myself admiring their apparently selfless devotion. And I had to face a sobering reality.

I had lost my passion for caring for Mom. I was no longer devoted to her. My will to persevere had been clouding the issue. But now my vision was clear, and this is what I saw.

Me sighing loudly each morning and surely making Mom feel badly as I entered her room, dreading the daily routine – which had once seemed like a nice “time out” from my former life, but which had now become an almost unbearable burden.

Mom getting upset with me because I refused to bring her downstairs on a day when I had a ton of work to do and a friend coming over for coffee.

Me getting incensed when Mom complained that the water was too hot or too cold during a bath, and me telling Mom that if she would “JUST STOP COMPLAINING, the whole blasted process would go a lot faster.”

Mom pitching forward and stumbling as I helped her through the hallway and up or down the stairs, and me feeling like she was going to end up giving me a heart attack – and, even worse, me telling her so.

Here is the bottom line.

There were increasingly more days when I wished Mom could be elsewhere. Even worse, I suspected that she was feeling the same way.

I told my husband John about my revelation the night before we were to head back to New Jersey.

“You’re not a health care professional, and this may be too much for you,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.

I almost hugged him for his wisdom. On the ride home, I thought seriously about taking the “smooth transition” advice I had been given. I thought about not having to fetch Mom’s meals or supervise while she brushed her teeth. I thought about the freedom I would have, and how exhilarating it would feel

But once I returned home and stepped into my house – soon to be a Mom-free zone – I got cold feet. There was Mom’s spot on the sofa, with the blanket I had crocheted for her folded carefully over it. There was “her” cat, snoozing on her bed and awaiting her arrival. There were her English muffins on the kitchen counter, just waiting to be toasted and buttered imperfectly by me and greatly appreciated by her. The relief I felt on the ride home turned to shame. I felt a strange sensation, and realized I was beginning to panic. I was scheduled to pick Mom up the following day!

I started grasping at straws, hoping that I would get some sort of sign to point me in the right direction. I made myself some extra-strong coffee and cried into the mug when I realized it said “World’s Greatest Grandma” on it. When I prayed for an answer, it ended up being this — I didn’t want to give up so easily. I didn’t want to rip off the bandage. I wasn’t ready. I needed to buy some time. I immediately arranged for Mom to stay in the nursing facility for a few more days so I could have more time to come to a decision. John agreed.  “It’s the best plan,” he said. “It will let us really think hard about what we want to do.”

Of course I dreaded what I needed do the next morning, which was to head right over to the nursing home and tell Mom that she would be there a bit longer than expected.

I walked with trepidation into the common room where Mom sat in her wheelchair. She was dressed in her black skirt and emerald green blouse, her hair combed and her cheeks pink with makeup. I flushed with shame when I realized that for the past few months I had hidden Mom’s makeup bag in a back corner of her closet. I had become unwilling to apply her blush and powder and lipstick as she had every day of her life.

“Hi!” Mom said when I stood in front of her. She looked absolutely regal and radiant. I spotted her aide sitting at a nearby window, beaming her approval. “She looks beautiful,” I said, and the three of us smiled at one another. I was aware that I was trying to buy time. I finally sat down and prepared to justify my selfish decision to my beautiful mother.

Mom beat me to the punch. “Mary Ann, I need to stay here,” she said. I was stunned. Doubting my Mom’s ability to make this sort of decision on her own – once again, underestimating her due to her advanced age and dementia – I countered with this question.

“Who told you that?”

“No one told me anything,” Mom said. “You can’t take care of me anymore. It’s too much. It’s time. And I’m happy here.”

We sat there and faced one another like two soldiers who had done their best to win a battle and then had to concede defeat. Or was it defeat? Mom, with her infinite wisdom and strength and innate kindness, was making it feel like a victory. I was breathless with admiration. In her brown-grey eyes, I saw an acceptance that was almost profound in its purity.

And then, both resigned to and emboldened by Mom’s decision, I suddenly felt energized. I asked Mom a quick succession of questions, lowering my voice while trying to fight back tears.

“How’s the food?”

“Good!”

“Do you like the nurses?”

“Yes!”

“Are you doing activities?”

“I think so! I can’t remember.”

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Yes … well off and on, just like at home.”

The word “home” stopped me in my tracks. How could Mom not want to come home? Of course she wanted to come home. The one question I wanted to ask Mom that day but didn’t dare was “Won’t you miss our home?” Because I both knew the answer and dreaded thinking about it. Of course she would miss us. She would miss her pretty room. She would miss looking out of her window at our garden. She would miss petting the cat. She would miss the comings-and-goings of the kids. She would miss her life as the woman who was so proud and grateful that her daughter and son-in-law wanted her under their roof.

But she knew what needed to happen, and she was being the bigger person by insisting on it. About a month before, my high school “besties” had gently questioned my belief that my mother would only end up in a nursing home after a fall in my home or a serious illness. I tried to hold my ground, as I had always visualized Mom and me staying together under the same roof for as long as we could – “Side by Side,” as in the song she used to sing so often during my childhood.

“This is how the world ends,” said my ever-wise friend Diane, quoting from the poet T.S. Eliot. “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

For weeks I wondered how the “world” would end for Mom and me. Now I had my answer. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But with a roar.

I walked out of the nursing home that day with my head held high, filled with gratitude. Because no matter what people said when I told them the “big news” – that Mom would be staying in a home – I could counter by saying “Mom wanted it this way.” I didn’t have the courage to open the gift Joe had given me so long ago. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. I had Mom to do it for me.

 

A week after Mom moved in to the nursing home, John and I arrived for one of our evening visits. It was Memorial Day weekend, and Mom was in the common room seated with two other ladies – I’ll call them Dotty and Pat — who offered us polite “hellos.” It is obvious to us that Mom is well-loved by everyone in her facility, just as my Grandma Anna had been in hers. I was so happy to see Mom. I miss her. I miss her like crazy. I never expected, although I should have, that when Mom moved out she would take the peaceful “Josephine Zone” with her. “Now I have to drive fifteen minutes each way to bask in the ‘Zone,’” I half-joked recently to a friend.

“How was your day, ladies?” John asked. Mom smirked as Dotty and Pat giggled. John is always a hit with the ladies, as Mom and I had often joked.  She and I exchanged a conspiratorial glance. John loves an audience, and we could already tell that he was in rare form.

“Did you have your Memorial Day BBQ?” he continued.

“I don’t know, did we?” Dotty answered, looking at the others questioningly. Pat and my mom shrugged and smiled, which compelled John – who truly should have been a news anchor – to read the entire BBQ menu off of a nearby flyer.

“Well it says here that you had BBQ pork and creamed corn and salad and cake,” John announced. The ladies were silent, and I held my breath. John and I both enjoy bantering with my Mom and her sister Millie, but I worried that maybe with Dotty and Pat – who were pretty much strangers to him – he may have crossed the line.

There was silence for a few seconds, and then Dotty spoke up.

“Well, if you say so!” she said, and we all laughed. As John and I left that evening, I glanced back at Mom. She looked relaxed and happy and well-cared for, and I noticed that Dotty was wheeling her chair closer to Mom. There they sat as we left them, side by side.

 

 

 

 

 

Black and Blue

When close friends tell me I am stylish — which doesn’t happen that often, trust me — my first instinct is to disagree. I am not being humble. I consider myself more style-conscious  than stylish. I could live in sweatpants, quite frankly, but I am painfully aware of what I am wearing every time I leave the house. And that’s because I was raised by a mother with a highly critical eye.

Years ago, before Mom’s onset of dementia, she and I had a lot of watershed moments. When you both are fortunate to live long enough — and at this point she was in her early eighties and I was in my late forties — you get to apologize for unfortunate incidents. If you are lucky, they become water under the bridge.

“I’m sorry I was so critical of you and your clothes when you were growing up,” Mom told me one day to my surprise. “Years ago, Aunt Bernice told me that my criticism was making you a nervous person.”

I had to stifle an outburst. “And yet you haven’ really  stopped!” I wanted to say. But really, is it kind to fly in the face of a sincere apology? I always have believed in room for individual improvement, and I hope I always will.

“It’s OK, ma,” I said. “I hardly remember it.”

In truth, I did hardly remember it. I had blocked those painful incidents from my mind, even though they obviously had lasting effects.

The water under the bridge came rushing back at me during a visit to my daughter Veronica in college over a year ago. My two high school besties Cindy and Di  had made the trip with me, and during our lunch my daughter surprised me by asking them a question.

“Did my Grammy criticize my Mom a lot when she was growing up?” she asked. I stiffened for a moment, wondering if I had carried on my mother’s work by criticizing my own daughter overly much. But looking into Veronica’s eyes, I saw only concern. I relaxed, and realized that Veronica had witnessed many of my mother’s pronounced judgements about body shapes and clothing choices — many of them aimed at complete strangers,  especially TV game show hosts and the network news anchors. Even the New York lottery announcers weren’t exempt.

As Di prepared to answer, I found myself intrigued. Yes, that’s how well I had put it all out of my head. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat as my wise friend formulated her usual measured response.

“Well, it wasn’t an outright criticism as much as ‘Mary Ann, are you shuah you want to weah that sweatah?'” Di said in perfect imitation of my mother.

“Oh gosh,” Veronica said, and I nodded in agreement. Di’s pronouncement had unlocked a flood of memories, none of them palatable.

“I actually recall her saying, ‘Have you evah thought about looking at yawself in a full-length mirra?'” I said, and we all laughed.

Which brings me to this current and  terrific piece of irony. Mom is most “on” — and we are both happiest — when we are bantering and laughing. Our best and funniest conversations center on her thinly veiled, beat around the bush criticisms of you-know-who. I guess you never really DO forget how to ride a bicycle.

The other day I told Mom about our lease of a new car.

“What color is it?”

“Guess, Mom!”

“I can’t guess. I don’t even know what day it is.”

“OK. I’ll give you three choices. White, red, or black.”

“It’s not blue?”

“No, that’s not one of the choices.”

“But blue is pretty.”

“I know, but I did not buy a blue car.” (A mistake, obviously. Strike one.)

“Ok, then it’s red.”

“No.” (Strike two.)

“White?”

“No.”  (Strike three.)

Mom went silent. She did not even want to consider the possibility that I would be foolish enough to buy a black car. She and Dad had always said they were too hard to keep clean. So I had to come clean myself.

“It’s a black car!”

“Oh!”

“Well it looks nice.”

“Ok.”

“Don’t you like black cars?”

“Well, I don’t have to drive it.”

I paused for a second, defeated. But if dementia doesn’t teach you how to make lemonade from lemons, then you’re not paying attention.

“You’re funny,” I told Mom, which began a dialogue very much like the one between Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in the movie “Goodfellas.”

“It’s good to be funny,” I finally said to Mom.

“Is it?” she said.

“Sure!” I said.

“How would you know?” she answered, and I literally erupted in surprised laughter. Whatever had been  going awry with the neurons in her brain, they were presently doing a spectacular job of connecting at my expense. And frankly I was thrilled to still know that there was a spark.

“What’s going on up there?” John yelled, but I could tell by the unworried tone of his voice that he knew.

“Nothing that hasn’t been happening for years,” I wanted to say. But I kept laughing.

It just felt so good to laugh. And even better to have Mom laugh along with me.

 

 

Shifting Gears

I was the picture of calm as the skyline shone in the sunlight. John and I were on the ferry from Weehawken heading into New York City for the Auto Show. The couple next to us on the ferry’s bench was friendly and we shared some conversation and a few laughs. “Enjoy the show,” they said on our way off the platform. Me feet touched New York City asphalt  for the first time in a while, and had to remind myself not to get overly excited. Since I don’t get to the city as often as I’d like, I tend to make too big a deal out of these rare outings. Which would be fine, except that if everything about my “big day out” doesn’t live up to my lofty goals, I feel like I have somehow failed or been failed. As my friend Pat wisely said, “It’s all about managing expectations.” Bingo.

“It’s not a big deal, you’ll get here again soon,” I told myself as we joined the crowd crossing the wide street near the ferry terminal and heading toward the Javits Center. I hadn’t been to the NYC Auto Show since 1994. And with that sad fact in mind I had been fired up to make this day happen, looking up information about dates online and arranging for my Mom’s wonderful caregiver Carol Corbett to help us out. Surely if I’d managed to get us t the car show this time, I could do it again — if not next year, then the year after.

I was doing fine with my “zen” attitude until we passed the trucks. A lineup of 18-wheelers was standing along West Side Highway, ready to transport the show vehicles to wherever they were needed next as it was the show’s  final day. My heart began to race with the realization that soon I’d be getting a gander at all the spanking new cars that had been delivered by those massive trucks.

A snafu at the ticket gate dampened my enthusiasm and delayed our entrance by ten minutes or so, and I managed to calm down again. I reminded myself of what my friend Carol had said days earlier — “Cars are no big deal, they depreciate in value as soon as you drive them off the lot.” I had heard this before, and it used to annoy me when people pointed it out.  My Dad was a car enthusiast and we attended the show together many times, beginning “back in the day” when it was held at the NYC Coliseum and ending with the first year it was held at the Javits Center. “It’s just not the same,” Dad said about the Javits show. And that was that.

So I had started dragging John along, but it just wasn’t his “thing” as much as it was Dad’s. Still, on this day, he seemed even more enthusiastic than I was. “Where do you want to start?” he asked as we entered and faced the escalator. “I don’t really care,” I said, and I was surprised at how effectively I had tamped down my excitement. Or had a dose or reality replaced the “car aficianado” dreamer that I had been years ago?

We headed toward the first exhibit we saw, and I checked out the sticker prices on the Honda models. I drive a leased Accord, and I am thinking about handing it back. I am craving something a bit sportier. Or is it myself I am dissatisfied with and want to change? I was reflecting on this when I hopped into a Honda HR-V that was on display.

“Wow,” I said immediately. I hadn’t sat in the driver’s seat and grabbed the steering wheel of a car at the auto show for years, and yet it felt like I’d just done so yesterday. “Do you love it?” said a woman who had hopped into the passenger seat. “I guess,” I said cautiously. The interior of this particular model seemed a bit “bare bones” to me, and I felt encased in hard black dull plastic. But my partner in crime was beyond excited about the foldaway back seats and cargo room and small size of the car. “Ah, I’ve got her pegged,” I thought. “She’s a New Yorker looking to make the most of her limited parking space.” I assumed that she didn’t drive all that often, perhaps just to grocery shop or visit relatives in the ‘burbs. You don’t need “fancy” to do that. In fact, maybe fancy is a turnoff to native New Yorkers, who have to worry about theft. Was that why Honda decided on this particular model for the NYC auto show? If so, they’d done me no favors. I was beyond disappointed, having had high hopes for the HR-V. “Do you like it honey?” she asked her husband, who peeked into the driver’s side window noncommittally. He probably wanted to get behind the wheel but I wasn’t budging just yet. I was too entertained by his wife and I was waiting for her to find something not to like about the car. Its boring interior? Ho-um color?  But her enthusiasm didn’t wane. “Well it figures,” I thought. “She’s living a fulfilling life in the greatest city in the world — she doesn’t need a car to make her happy.” I had to admit to myself that there was a strong possibility that I did.

I exited the car and I was happy to see a “souped up” Honda Civic on display. It was electric blue with “the works” as far as sporty accessories such as spoilers. Could this be “the one?” “Ow,” I said as I strained myself to fold into it. I had John take a photo of me next to the car, and I was dismayed by what I saw.  I appeared a bit long in the tooth to be driving that snazzy car. Was my functional L.L. Bean coat causing my proximity to the car to appear almost inappropriate? Or had I “aged out” of having a fun driving experience that I could actually afford?

“Does this car make me look old?”

After that I muddled through the displays, once again checking sticker prices to avoid falling in love anything I couldn’t afford. “Do you want to look at the Audis?” John asked, and I agreed although my heart just wasn’t in it.   I was actually getting restless. I was dismayed by the lack of flashy and substantial brochures like the ones I had collected while attending car shows with my dad. I had cut my teeth as an advertising copywriter on the ones I kept for months and cherished — all extolling the virtues of the latest models and technology. The Pontiac GTO. The Cadillac Seville. The Lincoln Town Car. The Chevy Impala. And, lord help us, the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.

By devouring the words and photos, I had become somewhat of a car snob. Truth be told, I once broke up with a very nice guy because he owned an AMC Hornet. At the time I was driving a two-door 1970 Pontiac GTO with a 350 V-8 engine. Yes, for once I was out of someone’s league. Surprisingly, I soon found myself dating John and forgiving him for his light-yellow Dodge Dart with the camel-colored vinyl roof. “My Aunt Marion willed it to me,” was his excuse. Little did I suspect that John was dating ME partly so he could drive the GTO.

I pulled a tiny brochure about the Hondas out of my purse, lamenting how much things had changed. I had changed as well. When had I stopped getting excited about the car show? Well, most likely when the prices starting hitting tens of thousand of dollars. I sighed, and then a young man passed by mid-conversation with his friend.

“You know what I love about this show? It makes me believe in potential.”

I had to smile. Something about what he said reminded me of my dad. He’d always dreamed of owning a Cadillac, but never did and settled happily for Fiats most of his life. Not that he didn’t love the finicky little cars. He surely did. “You’re crazy,” people would say every time he traded up for a new model. But Dad apparently believed in potential. His, and the Fiat’s.

After that I was fired up, and to John’s surprise I insisted on revisiting some of the exhibits. I stopped looking at sticker prices so much, and focused on innovative styling and plush interiors — just as in my days at the car show with Dad. I started chatting up strangers excitedly — “Oh, this is SO your car you look great in it,” or “What do you think of this dash because I just LOVE it.” I was behaving like Will Ferrell in Elf when he discovered the World’s Best Cup of Coffee. Sure, some of my “victims” looked a bit frightened. But I was unstoppable. It was as though I was eight years old again and holding Dad’s hand.

“I wonder where the Fiats are?” I asked, but deep down I knew. In the basement, as always. With the monster trucks and heavy duty vans. Being disrespected. “I’ll save you, little ones!” I thought as we headed down the escalator — me excitedly, John reluctantly.

“Oh my goodness!” I said upon seeing a tiny confection of a two-door Fiat convertible. The color — a mint green that managed to be subdued and classy — took my breath away. (Fiat ALWAYS has had it all going on in the way of color, you can’t deny it.) “Sit in it,” John urged, and I did after it was vacated by two little girls who actually looked to be the perfect-sized drivers for that vehicle. I almost cried upon seeing the dashboard with the familiar Fiat logo and the stick shift. My Dad and my Aunt Bernice drove Fiats with manual transmissions long after everyone else had jumped ship in favor of automatic. I haven’t driven a car with a manual transmission in years, and am frankly itching to do so. I long for the familiar sound of gears shifting and the engine slowing and then humming back to life as the clutch is depressed.

“Oh, I could sit here forever,” I said.

“Well, you may be in luck,” John said.

“Really?” I said, my heart racing again. I never thought John would consider buying a Fiat. For better or worse, my Dad and I were blinded by our love for the Fiats and told ourselves that reliability was overrated. I never in my wildest dreams thought that John would hop onto this bandwagon.

“Yes, because I can guarantee that none of the Fiats is going to start tonight,” he said. And I had to laugh.

Because that’s the kind of day it was. For enjoying. For remembering. For laughing. And for once again believing in potential.

I will get myself back to that car show. Even if I have to drive a Fiat to get there.

 

 

 

 

“I’m Tired”

There is a song that Madeline Kahn performs in the movie “Blazing Saddles” that never fails to crack me up. The incomparable Madeline, as a character named Lili Von Shtupp and in a spoof of Marlene Dietrich, sings about being worn out by unsatisfying romantic liaisons with men.

“I’ve been with thousands of men, again and again, they promise the moon.”

Here is my version of “I’m Tired” sans the sultry look and sexy ensemble –

I’m tired of never finishing my second cup of coffee because Mom is up and needs breakfast.

I’m tired of Mom asking where I am going every time I leave the house for a walk, grocery shopping, exercise class, coffee with a friend, or other diversion.

I’m tired of trying to balance Mom’s needs for in-home comfort with John’s needs for out-of-the-house socializing.

I’m tired of not being able to hop in my car and take a day trip, or an overnight to see either of my children who are in different states.

I’m tired of telling acquaintances that I am not technically an empty-nester when they ask if my house is quiet with the kids gone.

I am tired of Mom not being able to follow more than one direction at a time, and having to repeat even that single direction.

I am tired of Mom flinching and complaining every time a curse word is uttered during my favorite TV shows.

I am tired of not traveling when in fact this was the long-anticipated time when my husband and I figured I could finally accompany him on business trips.

I’m tired of spending limited quality time both inside and outside the house with my husband.

I’m tired of those moments – once rare but increasing in frequency — when I wonder how much longer I can do this.

Let’s face it. Like Lili “I’m pooped.” But here is the other side of the coin. Or — as my neighbor Debbie said after spending some time here – “Life is good in “The Josephine Zone.’”

Debbie was right. Life can be good in “The Josephine Zone.” For the first time in my life I am watching movies all the way through and getting “lost” in them. I am learning the satisfaction of preparing satisfying home-cooked meals more often rather than paying a small fortune for weekday takeout dinners. I have learned the art of “cocooning” and shutting out the rest of the world. I am playing along to “Wheel of Fortune” and impressing Mom with my puzzle-solving skills. I have learned to make the most of my limited time for social events and outings – enjoying them more and not worrying so much about how I look and act. I have tackled the crocheting and sewing and writing projects I had thought about for years. And thanks to my mother’s enduring love and appreciation, now so simple and pure, I have begun valuing myself more as a person in my own right and not a conduit to someone else’s happiness or success. I am finally laughing more and crying less.

Be productive. Be helpful. Be nice. Be proactive. Be better-informed. Be spontaneous. Be a planner. Be creative. Be supportive. Be reliable. Be sociable. Be useful. Be the life of the party.

Finally I know the truth.  All I ever really need to do was “be.”

 

There Goes My Hero

Dad was not warm and fuzzy. My mother sometimes referred to him as the “cold German” and yet she managed to convey love, admiration, and – naturally — some resignation in those words. There was a part of my beautiful yet deeply insecure mother that simply could not believe she was married to such a handsome and “good” man.

Dad had three equally attractive sisters – Gladys, Bernice, and Betty, aka “The Mandrick Girls.”  They were friendly and kind and sharp-witted. And, like Dad, not warm and fuzzy. I still laugh about the time my husband John became confused about how to greet my German/Dutch aunts – no kisses on the cheek and no hugs, as opposed to my mother’s Italian side where these were pretty much required. So there was poor John, rushing up to my Aunt Betty and smooching her on the cheek as I watched in horror. My aunt’s 5 foot 8 frame stiffened and John realized his mistake. He backed away slowly, mortified, as the color slowly returned to her slack-jawed face. Aunt Betty was graceful in her recovery but it took a minute or two as a recall.

My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.
My parents, aunts and uncles. Gladys and Bernice are in the front row, Betty is in the back.

“Your grandfather was very strict and not affectionate,” my mother told me in explanation of the Mandrick aversion to physical contact. In truth I have very warm memories of my grandfather. But these come courtesy of moments shared and activities enjoyed together. Trips with my dad and my cousin Tom to Keansburg, for example, where my Dad and Grandpa would enjoy beers together in the Heidelberg restaurant while Tom and I took endless turns at the wheels of chance and rides on the ferris wheel overlooking the bay.

Tom, Dad and me on an adventure -- this one at Snipe's in Secaucus.
Tom, Dad and me on an adventure — this one at Snipe’s in Secaucus.

When my in-laws Dolly and Otto passed away far too young, I was able to console myself by recalling long conversations with them at the kitchen table in their cozy home in Fair Haven. I had memories of the bear hugs Otto used to give to all of his “kids,” myself included.

But my Dad was not a hugger nor was he one to just “sit around and talk.” Unable to recall the same types of scenarios with my dad as I had with my in-laws, but looking to be consoled by memories after he passed away in April 2013, I decided to visit the places that reminded me of him.

I started with Atlantic City, naturally. When I was still in college back in the late 1970s, my father and mother joined his sisters in making bus trips to Atlantic City. Resorts was the only casino open at that time, but that was more than enough for them. Excited beyond reason about the fact that they could pay twenty dollars for the bus ride from Secaucus and get ten dollars back in quarters for slot machine gambling, they managed to always have a blast. My Aunt Gladys and my dad especially could be counted on to win a jackpot of a few hundred or sometimes over a thousand dollars, usually just before leaving to catch the bus. I would return home from college to be regaled with tales about the boardwalk, buffets, and beer.

Years later, after Bernice and then Gladys had passed away and my Aunt Betty could no longer make the trip, the highlight of Dad’s “golden years” became car trips to Atlantic City with my mother, John, and me. Robbed of most of his eyesight by macular degeneration, Dad could no longer read the newspaper or tinker with his model trains. Atlantic City became his only hobby, and he counted the weeks until I could arrange for a visit to his “favorite” slot machine. (Always one featuring the number seven, and always a quarter machine with three quarters as “max bet”). John drove back and forth from Long Branch to Atlantic City uncomplainingly, and Mom could be counted on to pile my father’s plate high with a smorgasbord of gastronomically incompatible foods at the Caesars Casino Buffet. All the poor man wanted was shrimp and beer, so John and I would make that happen. Mom would end up sampling the plate she had lovingly made up for Dad and then announce that it was a “terrible combination” — as if someone else had put that mess together.

My first trip to Atlantic City without Dad – and in search of memories — was during the summer of 2013 a few months after he had passed away. I was relieved to be supported by my husband and our dear friends Ann and Roger for what I called my “maiden voyage” to Caesars.

Surprisingly I was mostly fine. My eyes did well up with tears when I visited Dad’s “lucky spot” – on the main casino floor near the boardwalk in between both entrances, if you must know – but happy memories and the excitement of playing the slot machines and hoping for a jackpot overrode my feeling of loss.

There in Atlantic City, Dad was alive in my memory. I could stroll along a passageway or on the casino floor and think, “Dad walked here.” I could look at the ocean from the boardwalk and recall his sisters urging him to take a rare “breather” and enjoy the view from a bench with them. And when I looked in my wallet and saw my bankroll dwindling, I was reminded that whenever Dad hit a jackpot of over a hundred dollars he would send Mom – ever at his side, dutifully playing the machine next to him — to look for John and I and deliver a one-hundred dollar bill to keep us going.

I continued to make infrequent but regular trips to Atlantic City, enlisting not only John but willing family members and friends. Each time it was fun and exciting and filled with memories of my Dad and his family. A couple of times I would even encounter older ladies and gentlemen who sat on nearby machines and wished me good luck – just as Dad and his sisters used to do for strangers sitting nearby whenever they arrived or left a slot machine. I saw my beloved “Mandricks” in each of their faces.

And then, on a visit for my birthday in December 2016, something changed. I no longer felt the memories or the warmth or the excitement. It was as if, like Elvis, Dad had “left the building.” I felt lost.

A few weeks later I had a conversation with my Aunt Gladys’s son Tom that proved illuminating.

We were reminiscing about the good old days, naturally, and Tom brought up something that I had forgotten. “You know, your mom and Aunt Betty were the homebodies, always ready with a clean house and good food,” he said. “But my mom and Aunt Bernice and your Dad were always herding us into a car, ready for adventure – I remember Aunt Bernice’s red Fiat and your Dad’s blue one like it was yesterday.”

It was then that it dawned on me. I was no longer satisfied with “Atlantic City” Dad. I needed more. I needed the Dad of my “car” dream.

I almost always remember details of my dreams. In a recurring dream that I have had since childhood – but one that went away after Dad’s passing — Dad and I were driving over a bridge in his blue Fiat. Of course Dad was always behind the wheel in this dream, driving in his careful and skillful way. Almost one hundred percent of the time, this dream preceded a major event in my life. And the dream was reassuring, because if there was anyone I trusted to steer with absolute certainty it was my dad.

My conversation with Tom about the Fiat reminded me that I hadn’t had my usual dream – or any dream — about my father since he had passed away. Even in the dream I had a few days before died – in which my Aunt Bernice pulled up in her trusty but long-gone red Fiat and urged my father to get in, just like in the good old days – Dad walked right past me as if I wasn’t there and never turned my way.

Being who I am, I saw this lack of appearance by Dad in my dreams as an indictment of my current care for my mom. I don’t feel the need or the desire to provide a “laundry list” of missteps on my part. Rest assured, I am no saint and I mess up. Not in big ways, but in what seems like a million small ones.

Shortly after my visit with Cousin Tom, I added another request to my usual bedtime repertoire.

“Please God, I just need to see my father’s face again,” I said. “Maybe in that dream about the bridge?” I added hopefully.

A few nights later, I had a vivid dream about my dad.

In the dream, I was very agitated and was standing in the street facing my parent’s former home at 68 Overlook Avenue in Ridgefield Park. In the driveway facing me was Dad’s white Ford Maverick. We owned that car for a good ten years beginning in the 1970s, and Dad had taken great pride in keeping it clean and waxed.

In the dream I saw my Dad – my Dad — remove something from the trunk of the Maverick. In a second he was standing next to the front driver’s door of the car and facing me.  I saw a snow scraper in his hand, and realized that this was my dad of the “Maverick” days – still over six feet tall and regal looking, with his almost-black hair just starting to grey at the temples. I took a breath, reminded of what a striking and even formidable-looking figure he made at that age. Like his father before him, he was nonviolent but somehow you knew not to mess with either Joe Sr. or Jr.

“I have to pick Mom up and get her to the train station by three,” I yelled, pleading. I was willing him to hop into the car and offer to drive me to wherever Mom was. In other words, take matters into his own hands as he often did for me. Take the wheel. In the street, snow had fallen and was sparkling as though bits of diamond had fallen from the sky. Dad was nonplussed, as he always was in real life. Maybe even a little irritated. He disliked what he called scenes, and he despised yelling. He did not take a single step toward me, and I was dismayed.

“I know,” he said, as he began to wipe the snow ever so carefully off the car’s front windshield. “I’m helping you”, he continued in the same even voice, as though I really should have known this.

I woke up with a start. “I’m helping you.” I rolled those cherished words over and over in my head, reveling in the sound of them. I had forgotten what a “doer” my Dad had been, always working to pave the way for me and keep me safe.

I have to say that it is sort of strange to mourn someone who passes away at the age of 95. Part of me realized that I was lucky to have him for that long of a time. But a bigger part of me thought that he would live forever.

Even though he reached a ripe old age, I still miss my dad every day. I miss him awful. I miss working to earn his tacit approval, and I miss knowing that he considered me capable of just about anything. I thought that by allowing him to live to the age of 95, God had given me enough of him to last my lifetime. I was wrong.

But my dream made it clear. It’s time for me to grow up and stop looking for Dad’s approval, or for him to keep me safe and reassure me that I am capable of better things; or even to keep me happy. It’s time for me to take the wheel.  As Dad would say almost jokingly in stressful situations when he could see me struggling with what to do, “Hop right in, the water’s fine.”

I feel like I no longer have any excuses for not doing just that. After all, Dad was thoughtful enough to clear the windshield for me.

Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.
Dad and our 1974 Ford Maverick, with 68 Overlook in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reality Check

If the process of caring for my mom has gone a bit more smoothly than expected, I can thank past experience. In other words, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo.

My grandmother moved in with us when I was just beginning high school. I was beyond excited. I adored my Grandma, even though she never tired of telling me that I was “too skinny.”

The biggest issue was how to fit her into our little house. We had five rooms, including two bedrooms. The answer was to give grandma my bedroom and arrange for me to sleep on a borrowed cot-style bed in the living room. So grandma became the “purple princess” in my “lavender kingdom” and slept on my prized “gold”-trimmed twin bed from Sears. My grandmother was all of four feet and eight inches tall with creamy white hair and sparkling brown eyes. The whole set-up suited her.

Me, not so much. Cramming my five feet and seven inches onto that cot and trying to get a full night’s sleep was a challenge. My feet hung off the edge of the mattress, and rolling over meant that I would most likely fall onto the floor. After kissing the linoleum a few times, I became an expert “spinner” — and still am, to this day.

But it was all worth it. My grandmother had always been a loving presence and guiding force in my life, and the sound of her frequent laughter in our house was music to my ears. Some of the best times of my life occurred when my father’s sister Bernice came to visit and everyone sat in the kitchen telling stories and just feeling loved. Like everyone else, Aunt Bernice enjoyed my grandmother’s company immensely. Having two of my favorite people in our cheery yellow kitchen and sharing “coffee talk” with them was an experience beyond compare.

There were challenges, to be sure. A short while after Grandma moved in it became apparent that along with her limited mobility (due to arthritis) were some mental challenges as well. She began yelling out in her sleep at night, frightening me and infuriating my dad. Her diabetes worsened, resulting in some health challenges. As time went on, the tension between my parents became so high that I feared that they might split up.

“Are you getting a divorce?” I once asked my them. “We can’t afford one,” they answered in unison. How reassuring.

After a few years, Grandma ended up in the hospital and was sent directly to a nursing home. I recall my mother’s tearful days during that time, and her sadness and self-blame. To her credit, my mother had up to that point kept her full-time factory job and basically run a nursing home – albeit for a single resident — at the same time. This came with an unfortunate side effect, a “disconnect” on her part when I needed her most.  And even though I was able to reclaim my mother and my bedroom, I missed my Grandma terribly when she moved into a nursing home. To this day I de-stress by allowing myself to recall the peace and contentment of sitting with her in our small living room and enjoying “The Mike Douglas Show” and the line-up of afternoon mysteries and detective shows. (Often my mother would arrive home from work just in time for “McMillan and Wife” with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and she would say that if she had Susan Saint James’ body she would wear just a t-shirt to bed as well – EVERY SINGLE TIME. And my ultra-conservative Grandma would pretend not to hear).

My mother often brings up the fact that I helped out with my grandmother, but in truth she gives me way too much credit. She was the one doing the heavy lifting.  

And, like my mother, my grandmother ended up giving us a lot more than we gave her in terms of unconditional love, kindness and sheer joy.

Now that I am caring for my own mom with dementia, I do find myself marveling at the endless stores of patience I had when dealing with my grandmother. You want another sandwich? No problem. Change the channel? Sure. A cup of coffee? Coming right up. Sit and chat with you instead of running out the door so much? That’s fine, too.

I try to be patient with my mom, but some days are tougher than others – especially when there are a bunch of other stressors thrown my way. Obviously I am much older now. But what happened to the optimism and “we can do this” attitude that I had enjoyed only a few short years ago?

The answer that I have come up with is this. When I looked at Grandma, I did not see my future. When I look at my mom, I surely do. And frankly it unnerves me.

I confessed this to my husband and a few close friends recently at a holiday party. “My fear is that I will get dementia like my mother, but I won’t be as adorable and pleasant as she is.”

“You could never be as adorable as your mom is,” one of them said, adopting a menacing pose and nasty expression. “You’re gonna be a cranky old lady yelling ‘Hey you kids, get off my lawn!’”

We all laughed. It was a relief, frankly, to put one of my biggest fears “out there” and then end up being teased by my always funny friend.

As we toasted the New Year later that night, I gave a silent prayer of thanks for people who make you laugh. Crying is overrated, and so “last year.” I hope.

 

The adorable trio of my great grandmother, my mother, and my Grandma.
The adorable trio of my great grandmother, my mother, and my Grandma.