‘Aha!’ she said.

Anyone who really knows my husband knows that he has a thing for Mickey Mouse. His obsession stemmed from an outburst nearly 50 years ago when he was a young engineer from England—the great European “brain drain” he said—hired to work for then almighty General Electric. He’d established his quirky personality early on, so he thought nothing of going to his first management meeting wearing an open shirt, no jacket, no tie. He was told in no uncertain terms that he would, hence forth, dress appropriately—necktie, jacket.

The legend is, he returned to his cubicle, slammed down his GE-issue leatherette binder and bellowed, “This is a bloody ‘Mickey Mouse’ outfit.” His colleagues, many of them young hires from Europe too, ran with that. Someone left a Mickey Mouse card on his desk the next morning before he arrived. Just. The. Beginning.

His collection grew to hoarder proportions, especially after we moved to this house which has a tiny room he claimed. At least I could shut the door to keep the big-eared rodents contained.

Last April, in order to make his new new residence more homey — “homelier” his English friends would say — I put  family photos and  English memorabilia around. Wrong. He hid most of the photos, tore some to bits and generally stripped his room of anything personal.

Lately he’s had a lot of way-down days. But during one visit two weeks ago I noticed several female residents had baby dolls to cuddle. Aha! Mickey Mouse could help. Yes!

A plush Mickey Mouse, about the size of a six-month-old infant, was in Peter’s collection. I snuck the little guy into his room when he wasn’t looking and tucked baby M under the bed covers. The following day I asked about the suspicious lump. Without a word, Peter adjusted the covers so I could see.

Every day since I’ve taken some small thing from the Mickey archives—a simple puzzle, a magnet, the new Life magazine’s celebration of Mr. M’s 90th birthday—and left them for Peter to find later.

During my Sunday visit I snuggled Mickey on my lap as if he were a “real” baby. Peter’s eyes twinkled. “He’ll be all grown up soon,” he said. shaking his head.

I played along. “Yes-s, he’ll go away to college, he’ll meet a girl….” What could we do but laugh at our own silliness?

Header: Mickey snug in Peter’s bed.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

The worst weeks of my life so far.

I still remember how wrenching it was to drop eleven-year-old Carolynn at her first sleep-away camp. And I still remember taking Leslie to college, moving her in, and then watching her walk away from me without looking back. Those days still grip my heart.

If you’ve experienced similar days, similar pain, I can tell you they were nothing, nothing, compared to the day you deliver your spouse to a memory care unit for what is supposed to be a month’s respite for both of you.

My husband’s long, long journey from “mild dementia” to “can’t rule out Alzheimer’s” to “probably Parkinson’s, too, with Lewy Body disease” has lasted 15 years. Fourteen-and-a-half of them relatively easy, I now realise. My panicked uncertainty during the time since February when he had a bad fall, followed by weeks of rapid decline have been exhausting, wearing, and sad for me and the rest of the family.

Not so for Peter! The one good thing about dementia — any of the dementias, I suspect – is that the afflicted doesn’t remember anything from one minute, one second, to the next.

After those bleak early February days, I decided to try respite care because I could not carry on without a break from the constant crises. No matter how many times I explained to Peter that he’d be in respite care for a few weeks — a therapeutic lie meaning “at least a month” — he never grasped it. I based my explanation on the number of times he’d fallen since February. He had no memory of that, even with photos as proof, nor of any of his recent falls. “I can’t lift you,” I said, “can’t take care of you when you’re like this.”

Leslie and I had already checked local respite care. The best choice was obvious. Even so, Peter and I coasted along for another few weeks or maybe a month. Push came to shove in April. Peter fell again while we walked Nobby one evening. I’d convinced him to hold my hand and use his cane with his other hand when, suddenly, he smashed face first onto the street. He didn’t have the strength to get himself up and I didn’t have the strength to lift him. I’d been so diligent about keeping my cell phone with me, but we’d just come home from a nice dinner out, and my phone was still in my purse…on the kitchen counter.  Luckily, a young woman came by and helped lift him, then offered to get her car to take Peter home.

Not even seconds after it happened, nor at anytime since, did he remember falling. It was time.The hours, days, weeks, months whipped by so quickly since February while I struggled to keep things “normal.” Yet, the same period oozed too. Years could have passed while I was stuck in a molasses swamp.

I wouldn’t wish any of this on anyone.

The awful April day when Peter, Leslie and I met with the facilities’ director of nursing, the administrator and others is a blur. Though my husband didn’t understand what was going on, he did know he was the center of discussion and he hates that. He understood just enough to know he didn’t like what was happening. His Mt. Rushmore persona was apparent. I reached for his hand, but he pulled away angrily.

Between then and five days later when he was admitted, I prepared for his move as if I were taking him to college or to camp. I bought him new underwear, new socks, tubes of toothpaste, cheery yellow sheets, and bright blue towels. I packed favorite picture books about England, pictures to hang on the walls, photos to put in a drawer, his special tea and coffee mugs, jigsaw and crossword puzzles, pencils, pens and paper, Sudoko books. I washed and ironed his shirts and trousers and polished his shoes.

Leslie and Martin helped with the move-in. Stoney silence from Peter as Leslie and I gabbled and tried to lighten the mood. Martin took Peter to lunch while Leslie and I finished making the room as homey as possible. We added finishing touches the next day. Peter was almost jovial. He managed a few silly jokes and we breathed sighs of relief.

By the time all the paperwork was completed two more days had passed and the meter was running. A private room in the best facility around doesn’t come cheap. Thank goodness for long term care insurance. When I finally took my husband to be admitted, he was practically mellow. Whew.

Ah, but that was only day one. A Tuesday.

Header: Peter in the garden surrounding his new home-away-from-home. The fence, he has since explained with a twinkle in his eyes, is climbable!

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

 

To bed, perchance to sleep.

The visiting nurse has always asked the same questions of Peter. I have to answer for him and I nearly always say the same things: Yes, his health is good, yes, his appetite is fine, no, no joint aches, no incontinence, and definitely no trouble sleeping. The man lays himself down and is asleep instantly.

In the past year though, I’ve modified my answer to that question because he started having nightmares. Sometimes he yells, sometimes he talks, but the worst times are when he swings his arms as if punching someone, or kicks with with bruising force.

Of course that disturbs his sleep, although it doesn’t seem to affect him the next morning and he certainly doesn’t remember his nighttime carrying on. He goes right back to sleep; me, not so much.

We’ve always been territorial about our pillows. In fact, Peter is so possessive of his that I put an old, colored case underneath the fresh ones each week, so our pillows don’t get mixed up accidentally. There’s not much chance I would do that anyway. His pillows could be bags of cement; mine could be flattened geese, they’re that lifeless.

About a year ago Peter decided he didn’t need two pillows any more. Each night he placed one pillow on the floor on his side of the bed. He did that for months until I decided to take one when I went to bed to use as a bolster against my back and, not incidentally, as a foil for the frequent nightly soccer goals he scores when he kicks viciously in my direction.

That worked for months.

Then one night I was awakened from a sound sleep when Peter came to bed. Usually he’s very quiet, but that time he yanked away  the pillow I’d pilfered months before. I grumbled but drifted off again. In the morning, his reclaimed pillow was on the floor, smoothed and neat, on his side of the bed.

Yesterday morning I slept late for me — 7:15 — but I lay dozing for a few minutes when, suddenly, Peter sat up, threw his arms in the air, yelled, and fell on the floor with a crash. Had he scored a goal for Fulham in his sleep? I ran to his side of the bed, sure he’d broken a bone or gashed his head. No such drama except for his colorful language.

He climbed into bed and went to sleep at once. Later, he didn’t remember falling nor if he’d been playing football in his dreams. I hadn’t noticed the cut above his elbow earlier, but when he complained of blood running down his arm, I showed him proof of his fall. He insisted I’d shoved him out of bed.

Laugh? Might as well.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

Saturday morning I circled the soccer matches — “football” to my English husband — in the sports pages and wrote the channel numbers beside each. I was determined to forge a better day than Friday had been.

When Peter finally got up, the first game — ManU at Liverpool — was about to end. “This one’s nearly over,” he said, noting the score was nil-nil with seconds to go.

“Yes, but look, Chelsea plays Crystal Palace at ten,” I said. “Then, Arsenal at Watford at half past twelve. They’re your teams, aren’t they? Should be good matches.”

He nodded. “Fulham! Arsenal! Chelsea! Crystal Palace and Watford don’t have a chance.”

“Funny, you forget all sorts of things, but you don’t forget your football teams.”

“I don’t forget anything,” he said.

Hmm, I thought. How I wish that were true.


Crystal Palace shocks the boots off Chelsea, 2-1

Watford kicks in the Arsenal, 2-1
No joy for the Chelsea and Arsenal fan in our house.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

‘What do I want?’

Peter and I spent the morning of June 6 at the Commemoration of the Normandy Invasion at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. We’ve visited many times in the sixteen years since it opened. We go because we remember D-Day. Well, I do. Peter doesn’t remember much anymore, but I’d hoped the grandeur of the place would spark a memory.

A soft breeze wafted around us as we walked up the alleé and through the immense granite Overlord Arch. Above us, Allied flags flapped in the wind. As we gazed out at the awe-inspiring depiction of a Normandy beach, a soldier fighting to gain the cliff, another sprawled in the sea, Peter said, “We’ve never been here before, have we?”

* * *

After the ceremony we went to Roanoke for lunch. When I drove into Montano’s parking lot, his eyes lit up. “I know where I am now,” he said. We were seated quickly at one of Theresa’s tables. After so many Montano’s lunches, she knows us.

She patted Peter on the shoulder. “You remember, we don’t have Guinness on tap anymore,” she said, apologizing.

He shook his head, and finally settled on another choice. When she returned with his beer, she said, “Ready to order? Too many decisions, I know.”

He looked at me. “What do I want?”

“Fish and chips.”

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

When Theresa brought our food, he asked me about the contents of the three little cups on his plate.

“Tartar sauce. Horseradish sauce. Malt vinegar,” I said, pointing to each. “You use malt vinegar. It goes on the fish and chips.”

He dipped his spoon into the tartar sauce. “Oh, that’s good,” he said. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t even have tasted tartar sauce. “Too sweet,” he would’ve said. He dipped his spoon in again. “I could eat it all.”

He wrinkled his nose at the horseradish sauce, but then, he picked up the container of vinegar, put it to his lips…and…

NO-O! Don’t drink the vinegar!” I yelped. Too late.

He shuddered. His eyes watered. “Bl-l-l-ech! Wasn’t supposed to drink it, was I?”  He laughed and choked at the same time.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the look on his face. “You’re supposed to sprinkle it on the fish and chips.”

He did “sprinkle” the remaining vinegar, but then, to add to my shock, he plastered the fish with tartar sauce. By that point, I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d licked the container clean.

We’re reflected in the granite Overlord Arch in Bedford.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

Header: Monument at front of National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

Domino effect.

“You know how to play dominoes, Pete?” Bill asked on Wednesday. That question was all it took to wind my husband up after four weeks of down.

Not only did Peter go on and on about the social aspects of an Englishman “going ’round t’pub” on a Saturday afternoon, leaving “the little woman at ‘ome,” he chattered about the game  of dominoes itself. Bill always wanted to learn how to play, he said.

Peter’s sudden change four weeks ago forced me to act. I’d reached the end of my rope, stressed, dithery, muddled, still trying to handle everything myself. Leslie and Carolynn got after me, good daughters that they are. As happened, Bill, who’s been helping Peter for almost six years, suddenly had more available hours per week.

Serendipitous!

Monday, I’d arranged to use more of Bill’s time and provided a list of ideas and hints to guide him. In spite of Peter’s usually cheery persona, he isn’t always an easy client. And there are a lot more things to be aware of these days. His confusion has amped up.

So Bill was primed about dominoes. He no sooner mentioned the game than I began to look for our set. “It’s really easy,” I said, “but Peter can keep track of which ones haven’t been played. I just play what matches.” He laughed.

The two were out longer than usual Wednesday, while three of my friends came here for a lunchtime meeting. We did have some business, but more importantly, we laughed…a lot! It was a good time.

That evening, Bill texted to ask how Peter had seemed when he came home. “He was great,” I texted back. “You struck a chord mentioning dominoes.  More like himself than he’s been since that time…four weeks ago.”

The rest of the week was mixed ups and downs, but that one big, bright UP on Wednesday made such a difference.

Today we played dominoes, Peter and I. No surprise…he won…best of three.


screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.

Sweet talk.

Valentine’s Day crept on me, but I decided not to rush out to buy a card for my husband. Instead we’d go to our favorite spot for coffee. Oh, yes, I did cut a big heart out of newspaper and put it in his chair this morning and, yes, I did leave a message on his little white board. He didn’t notice either of them.

When I suggested we go to Our Daily Bread, his eyes lit up. We walked so I could justify one of their beautifully decorated heart-shaped sugar cookies. The place was bustling, as always, and even at 9:30 we were too late to get Valentine cookies. Peter eyed a strawberry-studded chocolate gateau, but in the end, we settled on our favorite apple turnovers.

After repeating his usual questions several times — “any news from upstate? ” and “how’s the big guy?” — he wanted to know what he could say that wasn’t the same old thing.

“How about ‘Happy Valentine’s Day?'” I said.

“When is it?”

“Today.”

“I didn’t know,” he said. He patted my hand and shook his head.

“Oh well, this is better than a card anyway. Two apple turnovers and two coffees for only eight dollars and forty-six cents.”

“Cheaper than a card,” he said.

“You’re a cheap date,” I told him.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am


We soldier on.

One of my husband’s culinary successes has always been perfect fried eggs. And one of his favorite meals is egg and chips. Nowdays it’s my fall-back meal when I’m too tired to cook, even though I’ve never been able to fry an egg. Take last night.

I got out the eggs, skillet, oil, plates for him. I put the frozen chips in the oven and called Peter to fix the eggs when the chips were nearly done.

images-1

Egg and soldier.

I sat down to read for a few minutes, but his grumbling got me up to see what was wrong. “These eggs are no good,” he growled. “I can’t get them out.” He had an egg in his left hand and was trying to peel it with his right, as if it had been soft-boiled for soldiers.

“Shall I do it?” I asked and cracked another against the skillet. In the meantime, he dumped the raw egg he’d scrambled in its shell into the skillet too. Except for that one, my eggs were done perfectly — first time ever! — and the chips were as good as frozen ones ever are.

Afterwards he thanked me and said he enjoyed our little snack. “What’s for afters?” he asked.

“Applesauce.” He was blank. “Stewed apple,” I translated.

Lately I’ve been helping him clear up after we eat. He just can’t seem to manage the task anymore. But this was a simple meal, with just plates and silverware for the dishwasher and cookie sheet and skillet for the sink. I went to watch the news.

“How am I going to get this stuff off?” he yelled. He was poking at the submerged cookie sheet which appeared to be floating on an oil slick.

“What did you put in the water?” I asked. He didn’t know, but I suspect he either dumped in the canola oil out of the skillet, or poured some straight from the bottle in lieu of dishwashing liquid. “Did you put the Dawn in?”

“Didn’t know I was supposed to,” he said.

Deep breath. “You go have your tea. I’ll take care of this.” I sopped up as much as I could and hoped all that oil wouldn’t glom up the drain.

It didn’t, but this morning when I came downstairs, the eggs in the refrigerator were soft boiled. The fridge had gone on the fritz in the night and warmed to 70°.  Not a laughing matter.

images-3

Glossary of English vs American terms:
His chips are our French fries (Crisps, btw, are potato chips)
His stewed apple is our applesauce
Soldiers are strips of crustless buttered toast, dunked into soft-boiled eggs, (pointy ends removed neatly), that are placed in an egg cup. Why “soldiers?” Don’t ask me, I’m an American.

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest winner, 2016 —
online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category.

Header photo: Frambled eggs, photo courtesy Epicurious.

There’s always something worse.

Peter asked his usual question, “What do I order here?” I gave my usual answer, “Beef.” We were at Lefty’s, a favorite restaurant, and we were hungry. I wasted no time ordering steak au poivre for him, Asian chicken salad for me.

He gazed out the big windows. “Looks like afternoon,” he said. “The sky is so blue.” Cloudless skies delight him.

“Technically, it is afternoon,” I said. “It’s not even five-thirty.”

“I never know what time it is anymore.” He looked at his watch. “Looks like daytime,” he said.

“It is daytime,” I said.

He followed the script engraved on his brain. “Any news from ‘upstate,’ or have I already asked?”

“Well, yes, you have, and, no, no news.”

“Any good movies on?” He realized that was another routine question and he smiled when I shook my head.

He looked at me, eyes questioning, mouth downturned. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, just thinking how I am now and how I used to be. I can’t even talk anymore.”

“You never talked,” I reminded him, “and besides, you’re doing OK, a lot better than some. There are worse things.”

“Worse for you maybe,” he said, with a teasing smile, “but not for me.” For some reason, that made us laugh and his downcast moment was erased. Forgotten.

When our meal arrived, he reached for the salt and pepper. As always, he salted and peppered liberally without first tasting his food. One of my pet peeves.

“You are peppering your steak au poivre,” I said.

He shrugged. “So?”

“It is pepper steak,” I said.

He laughed, I sneezed, we laughed together.

Unknown

‘Forget about your worries and your strife…’

“Any good movies on?” is one of my husband’s litany of questions. Usually I shake my head. He no longer wants to see the kinds of movies I never liked — “Silence of the lambs,” “Godfather,” “Psycho,” “Rocky” — so I look for lighter choices. We’ve watched a lot of children’s movies lately — “Nanny McPhee,” “Babe,” “Charlotte’s Web” — light, laugh-inducing films.

Recently, I surprised him. “‘Jungle Book’ is getting good ratings,” I said. “We’ll go at 4:00, then eat out after.” His eyes lit up like a child’s.

We enjoyed the movie, even though Kaa, the snake, made me cringe. Throughout, Peter asked over and over how “they got the animals to do that?”

“They aren’t real,” I said again and again, “that’s special computer animation combined with real animals’ movements…””How do…?”

“I dunno’ how…it’s magic,” I said.

Afterwards, as promised, we went to our favorite restaurant. Peter ordered his usual, and me, mine. “That looks good,” he said of my suguk wrap, as I knew he would. “I’ll order that the next time,” he added as he tucked into his kebab.

“You say that every time,” I laughed. “You ordered this once and liked it.”

He nodded. “I remember,” he said. “But, I’m not going to say, ‘any good movies on’, because we just saw one, didn’t we?” His eyes twinkled. “See, I remembered.” He was quite pleased with himself.

“Wow, I’m amazed. And what was the movie?”

“HA! ‘Jungle Book’,” he said proudly. That moment, a tiny glimmer of clarity, made us chuckle. “But, how did they get the animals to do that?” he asked. Again.

Well, the briefest flash of light through fog is better than no light at all.

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Header: Mowgli and Bagheera in a scene from “Jungle Book” (2016)
Animation example: Screen Slam on YouTube (2016)