Pete and Pippa meet at last.

He clutched a brilliant bouquet when he came to the fence. So bright and colorful I thought the flowers were artificial at first glance. But no, with Hailey’s help, he picked them from the raised garden that he helped plant months ago — glowing orange and hot pink geraniums, a pink begonia, a deep red celosia plume, pink polka dotted hypoestes.

And I’d brought along a surprise to show him. Pippa. I’d held off introducing her until I felt comfortable with the idea. Even though Leslie and Carolynn were convinced their dad had forgotten his Golden Doodle Nobby, I was convinced meeting Pippa might spur sad memories and upset him. It didn’t.

Peter did refer to her as “him,” and he called her Nobby several times. He tried pet her through the fence, but she would have none of it unless I would let her squirm her way under the gate towards him. I wouldn’t. But lively little Westie that she is, she “talked” constantly in her squeaky little voice. We didn’t understand a word, but she made us laugh anyway.

We talked for nearly an hour, mostly about Pippa. When I got ready to leave I thanked Peter again for the flowers. “What flowers?” he said.

“These!” I held them up.

“Where did they come from?”

“From you! From that raised bed over there that you helped plant up last spring.”

He shook his head and chuckled. “If you say so.”

“I do,” I said.

Header photo: Peter presents me with a posy.

 

Beard blind?

Lately, Peter and I have FaceTimed exclusively, rather than visiting through the fence as we’d been doing. Several weeks back an employee tested positive for COVID-19 so all residents and staff had to be tested per CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicare Services) regulations. I decided against fence visits for the time being because Peter stands right against it and reaches through to hold hands. It’s breaks my heart to have to back away from him…besides, I want to hold hands too.

Peter never was one for talking on the phone, much less now using a cell phone. He fiddles constantly with whatever device he’s been handed — cell phone, laptop or tablet — so one minute I’m looking at his hand, the next, a close-up of an ear or the ceiling, always accompanied by his muttering. I try to get him to sit still and just look at me to chat. Not gonna happen.

Last week he poked at the laptop so much that he changed a setting somehow so that he could no longer see me, although I could still see him. He fumed, but I reminded him that he knows what I look like—although I’m not sure that’s always true— so it didn’t matter if he couldn’t see me. We can still hear each other, I said.

It was raining heavily that day and the downpour was all he could talk about. I tried to change his focus. “You look good today,” I told him, “but it’s time to have a beard trim, isn’t it?”

He frowned. “What are you talking about? I don’t have a beard!”

“What’s that on your face then?” I asked.

“I don’t have a beard,” he insisted.

“Feel your chin,” I said. He didn’t seem to know where his chin was. “No, move your hand up….” I tried to help by gesturing but, of course, he couldn’t see me.

It took a while before found his whisker-rimmed face. “Well I didn’t know I had that, did I?” he huffed. He was genuinely surprised.

I have to wonder who he sees when he looks in the mirror. But then, as a friend reminded me, he thinks he’s still sixty so he expects to see a younger man reflected back.

Mirror image  The late Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, admitted that he’d always known he was very bad at recognizing faces. Sacks, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, wrote in “Face Blind,” (8/23/2010), “On several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself `in a mirror. He went on to say, “…I have been accused of ‘absent mindedness,’ and no doubt this is true. But I think that a significant part of what is variously called my ‘shyness,’ my ‘reclusiveness,’ my ‘social ineptitude,’ my ‘eccentricity,’ even my ‘Asperger’s syndrome,’ is a consequence and a misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces

Prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Also known as face blindness or facial agnosia. … Some people with the disorder are unable to recognize their own face.

I don’t believe Peter, who is all those things Sacks said of himself, is face blind because he does recognize me, our family, and a few others. The gray-haired, gray-bearded man in the mirror just isn’t who he expects to see.

Header photo: Even though he couldn’t see me when we talked, he enjoyed seeing himself in the corner of the screen, beard, mustache and all.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Through the plexiglass darkly.

Who would have thought six months ago that this blasted redoubtable pandemic would still have the whole world in its grip come August? When I hugged Peter goodbye that March Friday, who knew my almost daily visits would be reduced to FaceTime, chats through the fence surrounding the facility or, lately, peering at each other through a plexiglass shield?

Now residents’ families can schedule twenty minute visits outside, weather permitting, with their loved one, a recent change. The meetings take place in a secure area, one visitor at a time with no touching, eating or drinking permitted. As should be, the visitor must complete a questionnaire, have their temperature taken and wear a mask.

Brandi had already taken Peter to the shielded area when I arrived yesterday. His eyes popped and he did his “Oh, it’s you,” routine when I walked up. Right away he wanted to know why I had “that thing” on my face. “Because I have jam on my mouth,” I joked. He thought that was pretty funny.

Like the gloomy day, Peter was foggy, a bit more so than usual. It was hard to hear his raspy voice through the plexiglass and his ever more rambling comments made the visit difficult. He brightened, interested, when I told him I’d heard from friends in England. He remembered them, their home where we’d visited many times, and he laughed at the name of the village where they now live—Oxshott. For just that brief bit of conversation he was present, in the moment. I felt better for the glimpse of the old Peter.

When my time was up, he tried to find a crack in the plexiglass to put his hand through. Since we couldn’t hug each other I showed him how to hug himself—arms crossed over his chest, hands gripping his shoulders—while I did the same. He made silly faces, but his eyes were sad. Then, just as I stood to leave, he really looked at me. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked. His concern was apparent.

That tiny shard of clarity—wondering about my circumstances — so surprised me that it brought tears to my eyes. “I’m fine,” I said. My eyes continued to mist over as I walked to my car. It would take more than one cup of tea to make me right.

Header:  Peter’s photo-perfect smile even shines through plexiglass.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Do tell! Or not.

Experts in dementia circles advise that people afflicted with Alzheimer’s or other dementias shouldn’t be told about the virus that is ravaging the world.

As I often do, I went against advice.

The last time I was allowed to visit Peter, March 13, I gave him general information about coronavirus.  He listened intently, the way he always did when he understood I had something important I wanted to talk about. He always gets the message—my evil eye does the trick—that I want him to listen and not make jokes. If he can get away with it, he’ll always joke. He asked questions that told me he understood, at least right then, in that moment.

Before I left him that day, not knowing then that I wouldn’t see him for weeks, I stuck a reminder message on his bathroom mirror: Wash your hands with soap and water. “Why do I have to do that? he asked.

“Because of the virus I told you about,” I said. “Soap and hot water are the best way to keep from getting infected.” He nodded as if he understood. Later I thought of several better ways I could have phrased that.

He probably peeled the message off the mirror within an hour or a day. I believe it was better for him to have heard something about the pandemic than to hear nothing at all.

[Dry erase sticky-back tape, by the way, is available in office supply stores and on Amazon. I’ve used it often since Peter has been in memory care. It’s my way to get a message right in front of his eyes. I don’t know if it’s as effective as I’d like, but it makes me feel better.]

He’d asked questions that day and I answered with words I thought would make sense to him. And when, a few days later, we FaceTimed, thanks to Mark, Peter asked where I was. I thought he was asking why I wasn’t there, with him. But, no, he wanted to know where I was physically. I happened to be walking along the street so I scanned my surroundings to show him. But that wasn’t the answer. “She’s walking in town,” Mark explained

That’s all he wanted to know.

During a phone call several days later, I told him that the sports channels were playing previous years’ best sporting events because no sports were actually being played now. “You can watch them if you haven’t disconnected your television,” I said.

On the one hand it’s too bad the tv in the lounge never seems to be tuned to sports programs. Peter is only one person out of 15 others, most of whom take naps in front of “Golden Girls” reruns. He does have his own television, as do some others, but he  “turns his tv off” by unscrewing the cable connection and unplugging the power cord from the so-called locked outlet!  If soccer, rugby, tennis or golf is on the tube, Peter will watch it. Shouldn’t he be able to watch sports instead of “Golden Girls” in the lounge, where the tv is always on, if everyone else is asleep?

I came across the photo below recently. The activities crew sprayed a table in the dining area with shaving cream and asked residents to make designs in it or just enjoy the feel of the slippery soap. There were a lot of laughs while they mucked about and it smelled fantastic. In a way I’m glad Peter didn’t participate, because I can imagine he might have started tossing blobs of suds! Hm, maybe this should be routine, a way to make sure residents wash their hands thoroughly.

A fun way to wash hands, and it smells delightful.

I was able to talk to Peter on the phone today. He understood without me saying so that I hadn’t been to visit because I wasn’t allowed in. He asked about “this thing,” meaning the virus and, among other things, I told him that Prince Charles and England’s Prime Minister both have the virus.”Charles is safe in a castle in Scotland,” I told him.

“And where’s the Queen?”

“Tucked away in Windsor Castle,” I said. Then I explained that most countries have closed all but the most essential businesses. “But, get this,” I said, “the English were so upset that pubs and fish and chips shops were closed, so they made an exception.”

He laughed. “Gotta have a nice pint, right? Chippies? Can’t close them, can they?”

Header photo: A week before the facility closed to visitors, I walked into Peter’s room to see him sprawled, snoring, on his bed, apparently quite comfortable.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

Orange is the new faded blue.

Last January I vowed to spruce up Peter’s dreary grubby room. When he was admitted to memory care ten months earlier I did the best I could at the time, but knew I could do a lot better when I was less stressed and he was more settled. The look of his room was the last thing on his mind during those first unsettling weeks…months. And really, just coping was all either of us could manage for a long time.

Last week, I finally “spruced” aided capably by housekeeping and maintenance personnel.

An efficient young woman had already mopped the floor—even behind the furniture, mind you—wiped down doors, cleaned splotches off walls and washed windows and screens by the time I arrived. All she had left to clean was the bathroom. She held up the grimy blue bathroom wastebasket. “Do you want to keep this?” she asked with a shudder.

“No, it was here when he moved in,” I said.

“It’s gone!” she said.

Then two cheerful maintenance men, Smothers Brothers types, arrived to shuffle the furniture around. They approved my plan and the new dashes of color. “Needed a woman’s touch in here,” one said. I chuckled. The old look was this woman’s touch too, though lacking any appeal whatsoever. When they finished, I tidied Peter’s things and cleared the clutter, so pleased to make good on what I’d pledged to do so many months ago.

What an enormous difference the bright comforter, new Mickey Mouse poster and change to the furniture arrangement made. The orange paisley comforter replaced one I’d bought nearly 40 years ago for eighteen-year-old Leslie. That faded blue relic was way past saving.

I didn’t expect—and didn’t get—a reaction from Peter to the room’s new look when he and Mark returned from lunch. He never was one to notice little things I did around the house—husbands usually don’t—but I felt better for having accomplished my January goal.Sad to say, another goal dating from September remains unmet. I’d thought my plan to revive the gardens outside the area where Peter and 15 others live was a done deal. Flowering shrubs, evergreens, scented plants and bulbs were proposed for planting this autumn to head-start growth and be ready for springtime bloom. Unfortunately, that project is on hold until the new year, not because I didn’t fight for it as much as I dared.

Next time I visit I’ll take the tulip bulbs saved since Peter’s February birthday, Leslie and Martin’s gift to him. We’ll plant them in a big pot to brighten the view outside his window come March. There’s more than one way to get a head start on spring.

 

Header photo: Bright new look to Peter’s room.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

He who laughs last…

A number of conversational prompts loop through Peter’s brain — he’s concerned about how tall the trees are, he wonders at the numbers of cars in parking lots, he’s overly curious about what lies at the bottom of a hill behind the facility, and he constantly asks “How was work today?”

“I’ve been retired for 30 years, Peter.”

“Thirty years?” He’s astonished.

“I retired a couple months before Samantha was born, you know.”

“How old is she?”

“Uh-h, thirty!” He shakes his head. “And I’m eighty,” I say.

“EIGHTY?” He collapses with laughter. He sputters, his face is red and tears leak out the sides of his eyes as he collapses against the back of his chair. “EIGHTY?” He slaps his knee as he cackles.

I’m a bit miffed. “Don’t laugh so hard, bud,” I say, “you’re eighty-one!”

His eyes pop and he gasps. “No one told me! How did that happen? Eighty-one?” He thinks for a few seconds, then, quick as ever, says, “We look pretty good, don’t we?” And we both laugh uncontrollably, me at how quick, how sharp his retort, and him at his own joke about our unbelievable, hysterically funny ages.

Header photo: 1930’s era Packard is older than we are. And it’s punctuated with bullet holes.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Two points for a pair.

Sir John Suckling invented cribbage in early 1600s England. The game, still popular in pubs, is played with one deck of cards, a cribbage board and colored pegs with which to keep score.

Cribbage is somewhat complicated, but even more than the game itself, the odd terms and conventions confuse beginners. This isn’t surprising considering that the country of origin gives its villages such whimsical names as Pucklechurch, Nether Wallop and Great Snoring. Cribbage terms—his Nob, box, the crib, right Jack and Muggins—confuse as well.  A Muggins, for example, is called when a player doesn’t calculate her score correctly— the difference in points is awarded to the opponent. Good thing for me we’ve never followed that rule.

Peter and I used to play a lot of cribbage. He teased relentlessly when I forgot whose turn it was to play after a “go” or whose turn to cut the cards or, for that matter, even to remember when to cut the cards. In my never ending attempt to keep him engaged now, I wondered if he would try to play again. He surprised me.

Without going further into the myriad details and quirks of the game—this isn’t meant to instruct after all—I’ll just say that Peter plays way better than I thought he would. He remembers to offer the dealer, me, a chance cut the deck and to cut for the “turn-up,” while I remember which direction to peg. He never remembers which color is his and often—on purpose I’m sure—moves my red peg ahead if he and his blue peg are behind.

At first he didn’t seem to remember that a hand with four ten-count cards, a five, and a five turned up was an “even ‘doz,” his words for 12 points. But when I used the phrase I saw the tiniest spark in his eyes that said, oh-h, yeseven ‘doz

Mickey M  kibitzes.

When I forget to add extra points for a hand that is all the same suit (four) or that also matches the turn up suit (five) Peter reminds me with a sly look. I never have been able to remember that when “his Nob” is turned up the dealer gets two points.

He’s remembered the custom to knock sharply on the table to signal either that he can’t play or doesn’t want to cut. Another niggly convention I seldom recall.

It has worked out that whenever we play one of us remembers what the other forgets. Peg two points for the pair we are!

One day I suggested we play Rummy for a change. Nearly every hand, Peter forgot he needed to lay down at least a run of three or three of a kind. It confuses him when I remind him that he can draw from the discard pile if he wants a certain card and is able to play it with something in his hand. I’d just discarded a queen when he asked, “Can I pick that Queen up?”

“Yes, but you have to play her with at least two other Queens, or the King and Jack of hearts.”

He studied his hand then, with a flourish, spread four Queens and three tens across the table.  “OUT!” he said.

I sputtered. “You fooled me again, you cheeky bugger.”

He loves to make me laugh and I love that he still tries.

Header: Peter and Nobby are featured on cards we use.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Better than a dozen roses.

The weekend was perfect for so many reasons. First, Leslie orchestrated a tea party Saturday on the porch at the end of the corridor where Peter lives. Grandson Miah was the surprise guest. What a treat all ’round.

Then, on Sunday, I organized a walk in a favorite park for Peter, Nobby and me. My husband actually remembered having been there, “Once,” he said. I told him we’d been there many times over the years.  “Many times?!” he asked with raised eyebrow. He shook his head. Nobby remembered too, romping as if he were still a puppy instead of an old fellow of ten.

As we meandered back to the car, Peter lagged behind. I kept glancing over my shoulder to make sure he was following — he has a history of getting lost or hiding to scare me. When he caught up, he held up a bouquet of maple leaves. “Would you like to have these?” he asked. His eyes twinkled and he had sweetest smile.

Would I ever!” Thank you,” I said and took his hand, something he usually hates. He actually leaned in to kiss me but knocked both of our caps askew. A laugh, a kiss and a bouquet on a beautiful orange and red afternoon. Better than a dozen roses any day.

I took the scenic route back. Peter laughed when I said I thought we were lost. “You never get lost,” he said, and indeed I don’t and I wasn’t lost then. Then I told him I was more worried about being low on gas. That really made him laugh because he remembered how much I hate to pump gas.

When I opened the door to his room he looked shocked. The space was unusually tidy and the bright potted mum in the window glowed in the sunshine. “Is this where I live now?” he asked. I nodded. “Good!” he said. He took his jacket off, tossed it on his bed, and gave me a hug.

I tuned his tv to a soccer match, parked him in his chair, and headed home to put my fanciful bouquet in water and reflect on the glorious autumn weekend.

Outside looking in, Nobby seems to approve my maple syrup “vase” and fetching bouquet.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Why was I surprised?

“Let’s go see the ‘Art in the Garden’ exhibits…” I said to Peter, “…at the Hort Gardens.”  It was a surprise outing for him.

“Oh, OK!” His eyes sparkled. “We haven’t been there in a long time.”

“Be ready in twenty minutes,” I said, glad he was interested. Wherever we went on our travels, when we still traveled, we would always visit public gardens.

He didn’t mention, or didn’t realize, that I headed the wrong way out of our drive. Carol Lee doughnuts was an important first stop, part of my surprise. I bought six of their lighter-than-air glazed to have with the thermos of coffee I’d brought. From there I took a “scenic route” I knew he’d enjoy — through campus, past the power plant which intrigues him, around the drill field and duck pond, and finally to the Hahn Horticulture Garden.

Leslie and I had already seen this year’s  “Simply Elemental.”  I hoped Peter would enjoy it as much as we had. I pointed out Richard Hammer’s “Glorious Glass Flowers,” but he preferred the enormous hibiscus near the pavilion. I nudged him to examine the NRV Naturalists’ “In a stream near you,” but he wanted to watch the real fish in the real stream or see the spider that had spun the web attached to one of Lauren Collver’s “Bedrock Beetles.” I carried on about the beautiful handiwork of the Textile Artists of Virginia (TAVA) who created the butterflies for “Kaleidoscope Flutters by” in the trident maple allee. He spotted a real butterfly. Why was I surprised he liked nature better than art?

DSC01639

Floyd Quilt Guild’s colorful ‘Leaf it to Quilters’ tossed in the breeze.

We had our coffee and doughnuts in the arbor. The sun was baking hot, but the air was lovely in the shade. “Isn’t this pleasant?” I sighed.

“Mmm.”

My indignant tsk tsk was loud. Why I was surprised he was noncommittal?

 “Sorry,” he said, “you know I don’t like this heat.”

“Mm-mmm,” I said.

Two women walked by just as I snapped the picture below. “He’s a masterpiece,” I joked.

They laughed. “He sure is,” one of them said.

My husband loves being the center of attention. I have lots of nice pictures from that day, but this is my favorite.

DSC01613

My masterpiece, ‘The essence of Peter.’

Header: One beauty for the “kaleidoscope” of butterflies.
(Click on photos to enlarge.)

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.