May 30, 2010
Posted by Chuck Ross under Uncategorized  Comments
Yesterday, I let a ball drop. Not the round, green, fuzzy kind that dogs love to chase, though a dog chased this ball. No, this was one of those imaginary, metaphorical balls, all air and sadness.
It was Memorial Weekend Saturday. On Cape Cod, this day is almost holy, recognized as the first day of the summer season. Beaches and clamshacks and overpriced gift stores open. So do doughnut shops. Have you ever had a real New England doughnut? A real hand-cut, fresh-from-the-fryer, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, race-track-shaped oval of fat and flour? If you have, then you understand the fervor with which locals look forward to the day the tourists spark the doughnut shops to re-open. For this, at least, we thank them.
I woke up yesterday morning knowing that Flemings’ would be open, up the street in the little shopping area realtors call “downtown Brewster” and everyone else calls Foster Square. I had the dog leashed up by 8:15, and we began another summer of Saturday tradition, walking Main Street to get doughnuts – powdered sugar for me, a coffee roll for Dad (they had sold out of his favorite apple fritters by 7:15). Then across the parking lot to the Cumberland Farms to pick up this week’s edition of the local paper, the Cape Codder, and back home. Coffee, paper, dog… all on the deck. Summer began.
Halfway through the front section of the Codder, I heard Dad cane his way into the kitchen. I made a quick step in to see how he was. “Fine,” he said. “I want to take my blood pressure.” That task accomplished, I stepped into his bathroom to… well, do what one does in a bathroom. Yeesh. Disgusting. And the visiting nurse group had just called to say the home health aide had called in sick, so no shower and no light housekeeping until Wednesday. Fine, I’ll clean this mess myself.
Then, just as I had started scrubbing the sink, I heard the barking.
I tore through the kitchen and out the screen door, expecting to just be yelling at the dog to get his butt back onto the deck. Then I remembered – his Invisible Fence collar was back down in the car – we’d gone for a pond walk the previous afternoon, and I’d taken off the collar so he wouldn’t soak it while swimming out for sticks. I looked across the street, and there was the collie he always had to bark at – even when indoors, he’d be leaping at the windows when that dog and owner walked by. Before I could take another step, Bart had leaped. He had leaped into the traffic that Memorial Day Saturday brings to the edge of my front yard. In the time it takes a sponge to drop, a tear to form, the time it takes to mouth the word “NO!” or the word “BART!”, my fabulous, golden-haired friend was yelping and flying and hitting hard pavement. The sound of a ball dropping.
It was a day of loss and great kindness. The poor man-boy who hit Bart was distraught – overwrought, even – I think the moment will play in his head as long as it will in mine. I wish him great comfort, he bears no fault. Drivers jumped out of their cars and stopped traffic, others helped me carry that gorgeous dog to the side of the road and stood by my side. Two neighbors – one across the street and the other who’d just happened to be jogging by, dropped everything. Held me. Helped me grasp my way back to the surface. My poor father who walked out the door to see what all the fuss was about, found me on the ground weeping and held me as I stood up. Police cars stopped and officers waved the passing vehicles around a nucleus of tears and disbelief.
Those kind neighbors organized others to bundle the creature who, since he was 8 weeks old, hadn’t been more than 5 feet away from me for more than, maybe, four hours a day, into the back of my Subaru. Then they drove me to the vet, from where he’ll be delivered to the crematorium. In another few weeks, I’ll have a little wooden box. All 65 pounds of Bart in a little wooden box.
“If” and “If only” are entry signs leading to a path one should avoid at all peril, but I’m having a very difficult time not wandering beyond that path’s first corner. In the end, I believe, I was juggling too many balls. One fell. And my lovely, loving devoted friend ran off chasing it. He never could resist a bouncing ball. His voice, his scrambling paws, his rolling toys and cat-taunting half-barks were the soundtrack of my home. Now, I feel as though I’m watching my life with the mute button pushed.
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
Good friend, sleep well. I wished to watch you turn old and gray and distinguished, and be your comfort through big-dog hip issues. Now, though, like that figure on Keats’ urn, you will always be the leaping, swimming, running image of life and vitality. Your grace and kindness touched me and changed me.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May 25, 2010
So, this is why it takes a village to take care of our parents – it’s impossible for one child to be everything. I have two wonderful sisters, and they both love Dad. Unfortunately, one lives 8,000 feet straight up in the Colorado Rockies, and the other lives in San Diego. For those who have not been following this story, I live about as far away from San Diego as you can get and still be in the continental U.S. Tonight has me wishing we could turn the country into one of those folded-up paper fans, so that, all the sudden, San Diego and the Colorado Rockies were smushed up against Cape Cod.
You see, I’m really good at the administrative crap that’s required to keep Dad alive these days. Tracking the blood pressures, doing the weekly pill allotment, following up with the visiting health aides – this, I know how to do. But what Dad really wants on a day-to-day basis is the happy, feminine smiles and attention of my two sisters. They both know and understand the work I’m doing, and I’m not meaning to cast aspersions in that regard. I know they know how hard I work. It’s just that their voices are what make him smile. I can make Dad smile, too. But, the thing is, I’m so wrapped up in blood pressures and prescriptions that it’s hard for me to just relax. And being around him when he’s all positive thinking about his health, while ordering the clam chowder and the oysters and the panko-coated scallops, makes me just want to reach out and throttle him.
One of the things I do for a living is to attempt to improve the experience of corporate website visitors. Yes, I realize this is an extremely cushy way to make a living. Basically, I put myself into the mindset of the target audience, tool around a website and document all the mis-directed links, off-key messaging and annoying videos that start up when I might just be in my cubicle trying to get a better price for my car insurance. And then I dump all that information into massive spreadsheets. Seriously massive spreadsheets – like, 365 rows by, maybe 8 or 12 columns. Anyway, I’m good at this work because I am, at heart, a pretty empathetic person and I’m able to put myself into the head of a soccer mom looking for computer security software or a middle-aged insurance buyer. So, I get that my constant hocking over fluid intake is not, most likely, improving my father’s quality of life. But the health administrator in me just can’t get past being amazingly annoyed that all my blood-pressure tracking, pill-counting, appointment-setting work could be completely up-ended by overly salty menu choices combined with a lack of interest in drinking more than a quart of fluid per day, coffee, Scotch and single-serving Jello cups included. And that’s a good day.
This is where the village comes in. You see, a lot of nights, I just desert Dad after dinner. We watch the local PBS current-events show, followed by Jeopardy, while we eat our dinner. Then I carry my glass of wine upstairs, collapse on the bedroom chaise and watch whatever BBC drama I might have available via DVD or streaming video. It’s like Dad’s the product, I’m a product manager, and I just need a break from my daily market insecurity. I know how much he would value my presence next to him on the sofa, but the only way I know how to approach the next day of caregiving is to give myself that couple of hours of off time in the evening. If only we could do that magic paper-fan thing, so that, all of a sudden, my sisters would be next to him on the sofa.
This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that families turn on each other so strongly in these situations. One child sees a need that must be filled, and, in filling that need, that one partial arc of the circle, they see the rest of the circle that has yet to be connected around them. Instead of reaching out or, at least, recognizing and accepting their own inability to stretch their arms around the entire circumference, they begin to feel inadequate. The other siblings, though, might feel they’d be over-stepping by trying to take on responsibilities. Or, maybe that primary anchor gets angry that, while they’re doing the daily grind, a different sibling gets to step in and be the fun kid.
What we all need to realize is that we all play a role, whether it’s bill payer or health-care contact or periodic diet liberator. I now encourage my sisters to call as often as possible, and let them know that if I take that opportunity to take the dog for a walk or just go up to my bedroom and close the door, it’s not because I don’t want to talk with them. “You make Dad happy when you call,” I tell them. And when they’re sitting on the sofa next to him, even if it’s via his Motorola flip-phone, I get to hand responsibility – ever so briefly – over to my sibling village. And I’m every bit as happy as Dad is for that transition of power.
May 16, 2010
I think we forget sometimes that, in this caregiving situation, we’re talking about people, not saints. We see a little old woman in a wheelchair at the Stop & Shop, or an elderly gentleman caning his way across the exit at a local restaurant, and our heart goes pitter patter, as though we were looking over this week’s ad from the Animal Rescue League – “Sam is a 14-year-old terrier/sheltie mix whose owner just couldn’t afford to take care of him anymore.” All we want to do is say, “awwwww,” and snatch Sam away from that awful crate-bound existence.
(What that ad doesn’t say is that Sam also gets into any trash his nose can lead him to, and will take the hand off of anyone who tries to get said trash away from him.)
Or, we see a middle-aged son helping his father to get up and balanced on his cane at a local restaurant and think, “What patience and care he has.” We don’t know about the shouting match that went on just that morning, when the son had to almost bully the father to go to the walk-in clinic to get a possible urinary tract infection checked out.
It can be difficult, from the inside of this roller-coaster experience, to not hold myself accountable to that image of saintly son-hood and feel myself falling short. When I’ve spent half my day on the phone with doctors’ offices and visiting nursing organizations, working out schedules for home health aides and specialists appointments, it can be hard to have the emotional wherewithal to sit and make small talk with that 88-year-old man, with the weight of missed work deadlines weighing on my mind. But all those endlessly aggravating administrative tasks are every bit as important to keeping him alive as the balancing hand supporting him as he moves from seated to (almost) upright. And it can be difficult to recognize the very human experience he’s going through, watching his world grow smaller and just a lot less fun.
Dad is in one of his almost-o.k. periods now. Which means he’s anxious to put all ideas of infirmity behind him and pick up with the life he left off back in October or November. He’s wondering when I’m going to give him back the keys to his car, so he can drive on his own to his twice-weekly poker game. And he’s making noises about wanting to fly out to St. Louis this summer and rent a car to see his lady friend. By himself. Each time he brings up one of these disaster-tempting thoughts, I have to breathe deeply just to keep myself from exploding before attempting to calmly explain why I think it’s just not a good idea. Then I have to watch his ego slowly deflate, as the reality of his situation falls back onto his shoulders.
In other ways, though, I’ve become much less assertive about trying to get him to change to more healthy ways. If we go out to lunch and he orders a Manhattan, I don’t even flinch – even knowing that the cup of chowder he’s ordered with it probably has a pizza’s-worth of sodium stirred in with the clams, and that the next fluid he takes into his body likely will be his 5 p.m. Scotch. And, on that issue of fluid intake, I have stopped driving myself nuts hocking him about it – I might put a glass of water in front of him when I take away his morning coffee cup, but if it’s still half-full that afternoon, I just let it pass. Forcing my own blood pressure up with that aggravation just makes it that much harder to be gentle when gentleness is needed.
There’s a story we like to tell ourselves in this country about a time when we didn’t send our elderly parents to nursing homes, but, instead, welcomed them with open arms into our homes. This was done, so the story goes, in the spirit of giving back, a return of love for love. Well, the percentage of elderly in nursing homes has actually fallen over the last decade, with more, not fewer, moving in with family when help is required. And, it should be remembered that the average lifespan was significantly lower in those fabled golden years than it is today – when Social Security was enacted in 1935, retirement age was 65 – three years after most folks were expected to die. Older people are living – and needing care – longer, but often in poorer health, thanks to medical advances that can keep them from dying, but not get them entirely well, again, either.
With that in mind, we caregivers need to cut ourselves some slack. We need to recognize the many jobs we’re called to fulfill, from secretary to semi-skilled nurse, cook, housekeeper and financial advisor, and that it’s o.k. to feel drained by all those responsibilities. And if being less focused on physical well-being allows us to have more energy to help keep our parents’ spirits high as their lives wind down… well, we’re all going to die, but we all want to die happy. It’s only human.