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A Little Break Here and There

We’re all just one small step from disaster.

Four years ago I attended Astronomy Night at my grandchildren’s elementary school. The outside lights were left off so the Orange County Astronomers who graciously set up their scopes in a field could count on enough darkness to view the constellated sky.

And see we did – our cratered moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, and constellations even I could name. Through telescopes big as sewer pipes (but clean and shiny) and hooked up to computers, we peered at the glitter of the night, wondering which of the stars still beamed and which had already burned out. What a thrill to see the Milky Way in such radiance.

I decided to return to the activity room where most of the kids had gone to make planet mobiles and glitter paintings of Saturn’s rings. Across the campus, the lit room directed where I wanted to go but not how to get there. So I trod in the dark and stepped onto the lunch quad. But the elevation of the quad was two inches lower than the sidewalk, a change I couldn’t see. I moved out, the expected tarmac wasn’t there, my body continued forward, my foot resisted. I heard a snap. A crack. I knew – I’d sprained my ankle.

Someone helped me hobble into the activity room, someone else got an ice pack. I sat in a chair as my leg swelled and hurt. The next day, Kaiser told me the good news – my ankle wasn’t sprained. It was broken, both bones in fact – tibia and fibula. A hairline fracture in one, a fingernail sized chip in the other, and the reason that my ankle now looked as big as a fish bowl, and I hurt.

The orthopedic physician offered me a choice: a cast (ugh!) or a clunky brace from toes to knees (OK) Three weeks of galumphing around with my brace and taking Advil on a regular schedule, then another six months or so of aches, and I was ready to go back to the gymnastics team. (Oh sure.) Note of comfort: a big brace with internal metal reinforcement gets you through a special airport security entrance and early boarding on the plane. (Yay!)

Two years later I walked out of the building where my mom lived. Late afternoon the parking lot was shady – until I stepped off a shallow curb and the sun, hiding behind a hill only milliseconds before, now played peek a boo and shined right in my eyes – as I was mid-step.

I will never forget pitching forward, knowing exactly how awkwardly my body leaned, knowing there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to catch my fall but the street. Which it finally did. I landed on my right elbow. I realized I could wait splayed on the ground in that long driveway, that someone would eventually come along and help. I could also tell I was going into shock, and I’d better help myself. It’s possible to lift yourself from supine to standing with only one good arm, the other one screaming in distress. I know because I did it, then struggled to stay upright to get to the door.

As soon as I entered I knew – I was in big trouble. I was soaked with sweat, trembling, near to fainting, and in pain, the kind that sends tsunami crests of agony surging through your body. I knew it wasn’t serious – not like a heart attack or a stroke. It wasn’t enough of an injury to let me go to the head of the emergency line at the hospital once I got there. But I scared everyone at the facility – I could tell by the anxiety on their faces that I looked like I’d been dragged off the pavement after an accident. Well, yes.

They called an ambulance – no, I couldn’t drive myself. Lucky for me (I’m such a lucky girl even if I am a klutz,) Kaiser has a first rate hospital only twenty minutes from where I was. The ambulance ride, however, took me over unpaved outback to get there, and every bump and jiggle, every damned bump and jiggle, reminded me that I hurt. Even though we drove on the newly paved freeway. Poor ambulance attendant kept apologizing. (BTW, is it a rule that paramedics must be adorably handsome?)

Once in emergency, my arm swelled to the size of a football. No, this part I’m not exaggerating. A slew of X-rays, me just about landing on the floor – good grief, how could I stand and hold my arm in so many positions when it was broken and the only position I could hold it in was OWIE? – proved what everyone suspected. I’d dislocated my elbow. It was supposed to hang by my side but it was poking out to Nevada in a million little pieces and one giant hump. A camel’s back on my arm.

My sweet nurse told me she didn’t believe anyone should suffer with pain no matter how much of a klutz she’d been. Along with a flu shot (how handy!) and enough pain meds to make me mumble word fluff, everything began to get woozy. Suddenly my little emergency bay was full of smiling folks who gathered around and grabbed me from every limb and held me down. They popped the elbow back into place. Sorta close, anyway. Remember the smiling faces? And the sweet nurse with her pain meds? I didn’t feel them pop it back so I smiled too. Loose-mouthed goofily, I’m sure.

They wrapped me in gauze from fingers to shoulder and sent me home with my son (my husband was out of town.) They gave me lots of narcotics, (took fewer than I should have) antibiotics, and pain meds. I struggled to bathe, wash my hair (went every three days to a salon) to do all the things we should do – but I mostly didn’t. For months I couldn’t sleep lying down, so my husband thrust two enormous sofa pillows under the bed and I slept half sitting up.

Exactly one week later, a hand surgeon (Dr. Lee is an amazing orthopedic surgeon) spent four hours, first slicing my arm open seven inches to reach the damage: humerus, radius, ulna, all of them crushed, some bits floating, as well as two torn ligaments, don’t know how many tendons, and a torn nerve. (Good grief!)  Dr. Lee put this Humpty egg back together –and popped in a three-inch-long stainless steel plate butting up to my elbow and a titanium plug to hold me altogether. Still there. You can see them poking under my skin. Dr. Lee told me I would regain about 90% of my arm use.

He didn’t know me.

I was diligent about the physical therapy, started two weeks after my surgery. Every single day for the next three months I did three rounds of specific exercises followed by ice packs and then warm wraps. One round took one and a half or two hours. Physical therapy is all I did – and watched The Golden Girls as I worked out. (Lost fourteen pounds – yay!)

After six weeks when Dr. Lee saw me again, he exclaimed about where my cast was  because I hadn’t brought it. I still couldn’t drive but I’d ditched the cast for a thick removable brace to support my arm. And then I showed him what a truly outstanding surgeon he is – I had about 97% use of my arm and only a dull ache. Today, I have 99% arm use.

It was more than a year before I could sleep without being cradled by five pillows or function without any pain. I’ve regained nearly all of my flexibility, can paint and type again. At neither slip off the curbs did I hit my head, suffer a back or neck injury, lose consciousness (came close, though) or knock out my teeth. I don’t have a chronic debilitating condition or a terminal illness. I don’t walk with a limp or write left handed anymore (had to do that for about eight weeks) even though I’m a righty.

I succumbed to the dark, then was blinded by the light. The moment of blackness that should have explained the mysteries of the universe, the instance of illumination that should have let me see everything in my path, caused two injuries. I have been just one small step from disaster but now I am fine – and very, very lucky.

Today I watch very carefully where I walk.

 

Detail of The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

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Plumeria

 

Our family moved from yellow-skied New Jersey in the late 1950s to a Honolulu suburb. My dad planted a small plumeria tree with white and yellow blossoms. It shaded a bathtub-sized pond in the front yard of our Aina Haina house. Five goldfish lived there, darting near the lava rock edges. One was a bug-eyed black molly, the other four were orange or orange with patches of black and white. Paradise isn’t where you find it. It’s where you make it.

If I opened the front door, the fish ignored me, even if I perched on the miniature waterfall to watch them swim. If I opened the sliding door immediately adjacent to the front door, the fish gathered at the surface in the center of the pond. They wriggled their tails and bubbled their enthusiasm. They’d learned to respond to the screech of the slider, and waited for me to feed them. The fish never tired of this trick and I never forgot how to play.

Many years after we moved to California, my parents built their dream house on a hill in the heartland of Orange County. Dad planted a small plumeria stalk in the yard with a view to the Pacific. A view to Hawaii, if you could see that far. I think he could.

Unlawful at the time to bring them to the mainland, he’d smuggled a foot long stalk in his jacket and flew it to California, beloved contraband for his garden. Twenty-five years later, it had grown as big as a school bus, a glorious sovereign of the yard. She graced us with thousands of coral pink blossoms, fragrance to make us drunk, and beauty to shame the roses.

My sons played in the shade of the tree and collected fallen blossoms.  They grew and the tree grew and our family grew and changed, as families do.

The house is long sold, my father long passed. One of my sweetest mementoes is the lei he strung for me of those pink plumeria blossoms, the only lei my dad ever gave me. I wore it for a week until the petals drooped on their string. Now it’s a dried bundle in a ceramic pitcher. If I touch the browned and brittle leaves, they break off in chips. Neither tape nor glue can repair my clumsiness. I’ve learned to look but not touch.

The new owners of the Orange County house cut down the pink plumeria tree. Fools. It couldn’t have possibly interfered with their view of Hawaii. You must have imagination to see that far.

Writing is as much fabrication as memory. This story is true. As for my other stories, you’ll have to guess. I never tire of keeping secrets.

 

Photograph of plumeria flowers courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

A Balcony Scene

The banquet room was set more formally than in past years, with tablecloths and napkins. The staff at Polly’s Restaurant was always gracious to us, maybe sensing our stressful concerns. What should we choose for next year’s insurance? I liked the new arrangement, tables set in a square so everyone would be able to see everyone else. Perhaps this more genteel ambiance would calm our nerves. We always had a thousand questions at the meetings, and hearing other folks’ concerns generated conversations worth listening to.

Each year I had to determine which part D option for my mom’s Medicare plan was the best choice before committing in December for the supplementary insurance I’d sign for her. The yearly formulary was a thick enough tome to boost the youngest child to the Thanksgiving table. None of us had time nor skill to read or figure it out. Think new annual tax codes. The presenters explained the new plans’ pros and cons in understandable bites and comparative columns. I’d make a decision based on determining which health care plan would provide the lowest cost for mom’s medications, wheel chair rental, and ambulance service.

If we could not be persuaded to attend these meetings by dint of their importance to our (mom’s) health care for the next year, Polly’s sent each of us home with a fresh pie of our choice. How can you not show up for pie? Some of us came for information, some came for pie.

I was early but three gentlemen were already seated. It didn’t surprise me that they were fifteen or twenty years older than me. I was often the youngest at these meetings since I came on my mother’s behalf, not my own. By paunch and jowl and sartorial casualness, they were certainly the right demographic for the meeting.

They, however, sat gape mouthed at my entrance, too stunned even to speak. I smiled and said hello. They asked what I was doing there, my youth obviously confounding them.

“I’m here for the meeting,” I said, smug in my certainty of purpose. Only in my early sixties, I didn’t yet qualify for Medicare. They were envious of my tender years, astonished by my presence among their venerable company. I’m way too old (and married) to flirt, but their expressions demanded response. I smiled and tossed my curls. A little feminine confirmation of their masculinity couldn’t hurt.

“But we’re the Romeos,” one said.

Adorable. How can you not fall in love with a grandpa who knows Shakespeare?

“Well then I’m Juliet,” I said and rearranged the place setting so I’d have room for my notebook.

“No, we’re the Romeos,” he said, as if an explanation of their right to vote.

I looked at the three men. What could they be so worried about? I wasn’t the only person to attend these meetings on behalf of someone too frail to attend for themselves.

“Romeos,” he repeated, emphasis on the last word. “Retired Old Men Eating Out.”

The tablecloths and silverware. The square table arrangement. The recognition of circumstances. This Juliet was standing on the wrong balcony, seeking the wrong man.

How many names can we ascribe to red? Magenta, burgundy, cerise, cherry, scarlet, crimson. I didn’t have to see my face to know it blushed every shade in and out of the rainbow.

I’d come on the wrong day. My meeting was the next week.

Thank you, Romeos, for a charming ten minute date. Like many affairs it didn’t last long but I’ll always remember you. Seems I’d been looking for love in all the wrong places.

 

Painting: Romeo and Juliet Farewell by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Stones

 

Pausing in the garden I search for two perfect stones.

It’s not truly a garden but the space around our house.

I’m not seeking perfect stones so much as the right ones.

 

They’re scattered over the yard, assorted stones and rocks.

Few flowers as they refuse to grow – not the snapdragons

With fragrant cheeks or lantana with miniature bouquets.

 

The flowers boast perfume, organdy petals, ballet stems.

The stones repose modestly, too plain to pirouette.

Withered bouquets will be tossed but stones remain.

 

Others will bring flowers but it’s stones I require, hard and strong.

Which of them will speak of endurance, of devotion? Aha!

The sharp edged one of umber strata, a smooth one with quartz veins.

 

The grass crushes as I kneel and lift my hands to place them,

One on my father’s grave, the other on my mother’s.

I won’t reveal on whose marker I set the sharp one or the smooth.

 

Pausing in the garden I search for quiet sanctuary.

It’s not truly a garden but the space around the graves.

I’m not seeking perfect solace so much as refuge.

 

Just a thought 50

 

 

Image of stones courtesy Pixabay.com

 

The Calm after the Storm

I broke down in the supermarket the other day, in the greeting card aisle, looking at Rosh Hashanah cards. This will be the first year I observe Jewish High Holy Days without either of my parents. Just seeing the cards wishing peace and a healthy year to come tore me apart.

Other things unexpectedly lance my gut – the scent of coffee as both my parents could not face the day without a cup or two. The sight of the ocean as we’d lived near the Atlantic on the New Jersey shore or the Pacific in both Hawaii and California. The chirping, twittering sounds of birds as my dad ushered us through rain forests and woods, identifying avian species. The feel of hot wind against my skin, recalling the clutch of Alabama’s unforgiving broiling weather when I lived there as a kindergartner. Pierced constantly, I bleed all over the place.

I look at a pink blouse in Macy’s, thinking how much my mom would like it, maybe I should… then it comes back to me – no need to buy it for her. The same effect on spotting a new crossword puzzle book at CVS, solving puzzles together a favorite pastime when she was alive. The Alzheimer’s that held her in its long noose for so many years is finally over – she passed in late March. Still my emotional pain is ebbing – mom is no longer in the horrific physical pain that stalked the last year of her life, and that’s a good thing. My blood stanches.

I dreamed of my parents standing next to each other, gazing at the Pacific. Their last home was a condo that overlooked the ocean, nothing in front of their window but train rails along the beach and the swelling turquoise sea. My dad had one arm around my mom, the other around me, united again at last.

I know our dreams are personal manifestations of the world as we experience it, filtered through our sleeping subconscious mind. Still, I felt tranquil in that moment, knowing I had done everything I could to care for my ill mom in a way my dad could accept after he died nearly ten years ago. I believe in the survival of the soul – my dream might be a message from the world to come, from the sacred essence that survived the deaths of their corporeality.

Over the last decade, I’ve had a loving, supportive family holding me up. A son and daughter-in-law moved aside like cars in the way of a fire truck, allowing me respite with their two children. My grandchildren, who loved their great-grandmother, not realizing she was ill. She was their Gigi, and they accepted her quixotic inability to remember their names, always knowing she would shower them with kisses and hugs. My grandchildren softened the shredded edge of my worries with play, stories, and antics that allowed me serenity.

Another son and daughter-in-law, living far from us, knew when I needed a phone call. The cell tower network (we are so very fortunate to live in an era of global communication access) leap frogs hundreds of miles so I could contact our two youngest grandchildren. I listened to their baby talk until their babbling chatter over the years became words, then sentences, and finally full throttled conversations about dinosaurs, gymnastics class, and the funny bugs in the yard. To be immersed in such presence is a holy moment.

My husband put up with my despair and commiserated about the injustice of a disease that dismantled my mother’s social and logic skills. He endured me fuming about the legal, health, and financial worries that woke me in the middle of the night like lions hunting on African grasslands, the threat of attack imminent. A husband who visited his mother-in-law without a prompt from me, always with a fresh bouquet of blooms to remind her that she was someone important to him, even when she no longer had any idea who he was. He soothed me back to sleep.

Friends inflated a flotation jacket around me, keeping me from drowning. Some are people I’ve known forever, living near enough for a hug fest, others only close enough for a sobbing phone call late at night. My friends are a bulwark of ears and shoulders, one limb to turn my verbal outrage into sense, the other a net to catch my emotional free fall. Many are family members of other sufferers of Alzheimer’s. We are an alliance of wisdom and folk stories about how to limit the devastation of the disease, both the physical impact on those who are ill and the emotional toll that forces family into no man’s land. All of it is about loss, confusion, and righting a leaky craft. They remain steadfast for me as I do for them.

Alzheimer’s is a shipwreck foundered on alien shoals. But I am learning to jump ship, skip the waves, and wade in the shallows. To smile. To sleep through the night. To feel the consolation that my parents’ long journeys are over, that mine will be an easier trek each new day. There is laughter again, friendship, love, family, and calm after the storm.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Image of California coastline courtesy of Pixabay

Labor Day

When I was a kid living on Parkway Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey, all the capital city’s parades marched by my house. Brass bands played their instruments in flashy uniforms, tiara topped queens perched on festive floats, military regiments marched in stately uniforms, and the top-hatted mayor waved from the back seat of a convertible Cadillac – all of them strutted along the route. Horses too, the magnificent beasts without whose presence a parade is just the leftover straggle of a city garage sale.

I doubt I could tell the difference between the Christmas spectacle and the one for Labor Day, except one showcased Santa in a sleigh pulled by a fire truck (where were the reindeer?) and the other highlighted city workers marching beside their union alliances.

Labor Day is a public, federal holiday established to honor the contributions of the American labor movement. It promotes the prosperity and well-being of our country, supported by those who build, serve, clean, maintain, and defend the many enterprises that comprise the enduring and independent fabric of the United States. Their work is usually grungy, often dangerous, sometimes heroic, and rarely makes the nightly news.

I don’t know if Trenton’s parades still march by the house. The house is still there, Google Images showing it’s barely changed in sixty years. But producing a parade is a task requiring a monumental budget with minimal financial recoupment possible. It’s a traveling billboard, perhaps, advertising the best goods for sale, gambling on future purchase of products, city tax base growing among the ranks.

Maybe the Santa parade still treks along Parkway Avenue through the winter snow, but Labor Day? Most of those for whom the end-of-summer holiday was created will work on Labor Day. Holiday pay (yeah, nice, but still…) and no recognition are more the norm than processional exhibition for those who serve in the lowliest service jobs.

If you’re out and about today, smile big at the folks taking a day ON, not off, and leave an extra tip. It’s Labor Day and they’ve got work to do. Taking care of you and me. Here’s where I put my hand over my heart and give a nod of appreciation.

 

Just a Thought 49

 

Photo of Labor Day Parade, Buffalo, New York, circa 1900, courtesy commons.wikimedia

 

The Terrain of the Long Road

It’s been five months since my mom died, nearly ten years since my dad passed. I’ve only started to grieve both of them, appropriate since once they decided to truly stick together (thank God for Marriage Encounter) they were rarely apart. That was well into their marriage, the first twenty-five years packed like a Molotov cocktail with vitriol and blame, the last thirty-six jammed with hand holding and secrets. Also affection, maybe love, and a charmed social appearance that fooled the world. Which meant there was no place for me until I was needed by my mother’s side after my dad died.

My mom suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, the condition from which there’s no respite and only one ultimate outcome. Long before we identified the alien craters of her brain as the vestiges of a decimating disease, I knew she also bore the scars of full throttle psychosis from childhood, a mental health condition that colored her with crazy glue and nearly destroyed me. It took years and years for me, first of hiding, then of admitting, then of sharing (too much, way too much,) to finally begin to heal. I will be seventy-years-old on Labor Day – I have only begun to understand, only begun to heal, but at least I have that.

In the 117 years since Alois Alzheimer identified the disease, they (the scientists, doctors, clinicians) have made virtually no progress in finding a cure, a prevention, or even an effective interruption in the progress of the disease. The study of why the brain constructs this weird labyrinth of reduced communicative skills and thunderous retreat to childhood has flat lined.

The newest research shows that they know next to nothing after all, and the promised cure around the bend is a long way from a pill or a plan. So much for prophecy. Instead it’s a long flat road, getting flatter as they travel, sticking needles into volunteers, taking MRI’s, prescribing pills, diets, and regimens. It’s the brain after all, the most mysterious and complex of human organs. Let us in, the scientists beg, but the brain smiles its twisted spheres and holds tight its secrets, a snarky Cheshire Cat. Drink me, it answers and grins, the key too hard to reach. It’s a long way down the rabbit hole and no easy climb back up. It hardly matters to my parents. They are both gone.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross identified five stages of grief at the loss of a loved one. They have nothing to do with me. I’m not following her order. I’m wallowing in all of them at once and more that she never mentioned. Because part of the process of grief is coming to terms with the history of yourself and the person who died.

When my father died, I had no opportunity to grieve. True grieving is, after all, a luxury. There must be time to sit on the sofa and cry all night long, to wander the back alleys looking for something more dangerous than what you’re already enduring, to drink yourself into a stupor and fall naked into someone’s bed, to kneel at a grave and keen the loss. I didn’t have that time. I had a mother whose plunge into Alzheimer’s made rubble of my time. Of me. She needed me as her legal advocate, her appointment transportation, her entertainment committee, her financial warrior, and sometimes her confidante. For while I had no time, she had all the time.

Nothing pressed on mom to get things done. Paying rent, shopping for toothpaste, washing blouses, making dinner, even bathroom assistance – it was all provided. Since the progress of her illness had been identified by her physician as much more severe than I’d realized, (remember, I said my parents had crafted a social appearance to fool the world) I’d been forced to place her in a memory care residence. Not now will I discuss the emotional massacre of removing someone from the privacy and luxury of their own home to an institution, no matter how much safer it is for them. Understand, please, that it robbed me of years of sleep, loaded me with stress as thick and dangerous as the carbs and salt in a family size pizza, deprived me of common sense decision making for my own life, and saddled me with nightmares that segued into daymares – as if I could sleep at all. That was how my time was spent – worrying, second guessing, researching, and driving all over the place because of responsibilities to mom, to my family, and to the trust that paid her expenses.

She spent her time mulling as much as her disease allowed; otherwise she allowed me to function for her. I made myself present in her life, visiting four to five times a week, four to six hours a visit, doing everything I could to make her believe that her life hadn’t changed since her husband had died. A person with Alzheimer’s cannot grieve. They cannot process information or internalize new experiences and move on, they cannot abide by Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ routine. They cannot remember. My mom asked every day when he was coming back, and every time I tried to explain and provide a spiritual reference for comfort. It didn’t stick. So she’d ask again and I’d explain again or try to distract her or simply moan.

And this is where I stand today. Finally sobbing over the deaths of my parents. For while they did not die on the same day, they both died for me when my mom passed on March 30, 2018.

There is no cure around the bend for Alzheimer’s, only the deathly flatness of the road, like farmland tilled and plowed for hundreds of years, land made flatter and flatter as crop after crop is planted and harvested. Still growing tomatoes or corn or strawberries. Still researching and testing with no viable results.

It’s a long road ahead of me, full of trenches, crumbled surfaces, clutching mud. I face a perilous journey before I am fully able to forgive, apologize, move forward, to lay my head on their graves and know it will be OK. I am grieving now.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Black and white image of grief courtesy CCO Public Domain