Oh! My funny Valentine!

Valentine’s Day! Chocolates and cupids, hugs and kisses, champagne and…more champagne. Right?

Not so much around here these past three days. Still, I believe firmly that no matter how very bad things get, there’s always a bright side, always a laugh hidden somewhere amidst the crumpled tissues.

Yesterday, after hours at the doctor’s office, a laugh presented itself that had me giggling all the way home.

[Sometime in the next week, I’ll write a post about the second worst day of my life so far, but for now, this is the laugh that made yesterday tolerable.]

I’d taken Peter to see Dr. T for a follow-up to, um, what happened Sunday. Suspecting a possible UTI (urinary tract infection), at the end of the consultation Peter was ushered to the restroom to provide a specimen…you know…pee in a bottle.

I sat in a chair at the side of the lab to wait. And wait. When the nurse walked around the corner I asked if he was still in there? I thought maybe he was out of my line of sight waiting for lab results or maybe they were drawing blood too.

She nodded a bit frantically. “Should I try to get him out?” she asked.

“Yes, or I will if you want,” I said. I got up and walked into the lab just after she knocked on the toilet door. Peter popped out holding a nearly overflowing cup. There was something in his other hand and he had a silly look on his face as he walked toward me.

“Are you OK?” I asked. “What’s in your hand?”

He showed me. Although he couldn’t explain — words fail him most of then time these days — apparently he’d been waiting for someone to tell him to come out, so he’d amused himself by folding paper towels into hats.

OMG, how I laughed! If ever there was a time for bathroom humor this was it.

Header photo: Peter’s paper hat or maybe it was his attempt to make me a Valentine?

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

Could be a whole lot worse!

Most of January, I was mired in gloom worthy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and for no good reason really. We are fortunate to have good long-term care insurance, I have companion help for Peter, and house-cleaning help for me. Best of all, Leslie is close by to bolster me, and Carolynn cheerleads from 596 miles away.

Could be a whole lot worse.

A well-timed phone call jerked me right back to my senses last week. Several times a year, our insurance company nurses call to ask routine questions: “Does Mr. Clarke need help bathing himself? Does he need help brushing his teeth? Has Mr. Clarke had any falls lately? Does he need help toileting? Is he incontinent? Does he have a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?” I always answer no. When they ask him directly how he’s doing, he charms them with a cheery “So far, so good.”

Before she rang off the nurse asked for more detail about his days. Peter is way more forgetful than the last time she checked, I told her, and more confused generally. And no, he can’t really converse except with me or other family members. We try to fill in the blanks and make sense of what we think he wants to say.

But, Peter copes better than most. He doesn’t need nursing care — yet — and he still “lets the dog walk him twice a day.” His sense of humor is intact, and although he often wears me out with his silly jokes and continuous corny patter, he takes care of me in the only way he can. He makes me laugh.

A recent morning for instance.

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If not now, when?

I’d been begging him to get rid of the moth-eaten, raggedy wool sweater he wears all the time. I dug into his drawerful of English cardigans —”cardis” he calls them — and found a marine blue double knit one. “Maybe you’d like to wear this for a change,” I said when I handed it to him. I thought sure he’d recognize it as one his mum had sent more than forty-five years ago, but he didn’t. He’s never worn it, but he’s always said he would when he was an old man. If not now, when? I thought.

Darned if he didn’t put it on right away. I wasn’t surprised how perfect it looked with the blue tattersall shirt he was wearing. I spread praise thickly.

He looked in the mirror, tucked his chin in, puffed his chest out, and said in a rumbling Churchillian voice, “Hrmp hrmp, erm, yes, jolly good, yes, I say, yes, mmm….”

When I burst out laughing, he wrapped me in a hug and I asked myself, what in the bloody heck do I have to feel depressed about?

Header photo: Close-up of Peter’s moth-eaten, raggedy wool sweater.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Apples and pears…stairs.

Peter looked at the lunch I was fixing for myself, my usual apple, chunk of Cheddar cheese, glass of milk. “Where did you get the apple?” he asked.

I pointed to the old wooden bowl that has always occupied our kitchen, that is always filled with fruit, and the occasional veg.

“Oh, I didn’t know that was there.” He picked out a piece of fruit, came back to the sink and turned on the water.

“That’s a pear,” I said as he washed it off.

Instantly, he collapsed laughing, his face as red as the apple’s cheeks, eyes twinkling. He hugged me. “I know it’s a pear, silly. I’m not that far gone.” I laughed with him and savored the hug.

That far gone, no, but he is more and more confused by the day, less and less able to find words or remember the simplest things. Still, I was grateful for the moment, the laugh, and the hug!

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Fruit with acorn squash.

Header photo: What a pair, pear.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

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

Header photo: Willow glows at dawn.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Hello! My name is…

Bad enough that our doctor and our dentist have the same last names. Not only that, but our doctor and Peter’s dermatologist have the same first names and very similar last names. Add to that my childhood friend and another friend from the not as distant past have the same first names. The former’s husband has the same first name as the latter’s surname.

My poor husband doesn’t have a chance of keeping all that straight.

Recently, while Skyping with our friends in England, Martin and Anna, Peter was confounded by a question Martin asked. He came running to me, mid-Skype, to ask about “an old house.” I had no idea what he was talking about, so I followed him here, to my computer. “That house,” Peter said, pointing to a small painting of our previous home on the wall behind him. His friend could see it as they talked, and wondered about it.

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Peter with son-in-law Martin.

“Martin painted that for me for Christmas about thirty years ago,” I said.

“Martin? Martin doesn’t paint,” Peter scoffed, while his friend laughed on the other side of the Atlantic.

“No-o, not that Martin,” I said, “son-in-law Martin!”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, anyway, I don’t remember that house.”

“Peter, we lived there seventeen years,” I said, frustrated. I loved that house, loved living there. He shook his head. Nope, he neither remembered the house, the little village, nor that Leslie’s husband Martin painted the picture. Peter’s old college mate sat at his kitchen table chuckling, not that the confusion was really funny. But, might as well laugh as cry, eh?

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Mates of old.

Header photo: Peter and his best mate Martin.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Call a spade a spade.

From Sally Hepworth’s touching, witty, insightful, heartbreaking novel, The things we keep, these two paragraphs jumped off page 21 and imprinted themselves on my brain and on my heart:

Dr. Brain once told me that an Alzheimer’s brain was like the snow on a mountain peak—slowly melting. There are days when the sun is bright and chunks drop off all over the place, and there are days when the sun stays tucked behind clouds and everything remains largely intact. Then there are days — spectacular days (his words) — when you stumble across a trail you thought was gone forever.

“I get the feeling that since the analogy involved the words “mountain peak” and “spectacular,” Dr. Brain thought this news wouldn’t be depressing to hear, when in fact, the opposite was true.  I think I’d have felt better about my prognosis [Anna is 38 and has early-onset Alzheimer’s] if he’d reworded a little. Something like, The brain is like a filthy, stinking pile of crap. When the sun comes out, it stinks worse than you can imagine, and when it’s cold or cloudy, you can barely smell it at all. Then there are the days that, if the wind is coming from a certain way, you might catch the cold scent of a spruce for a few hours and forget the crap is even there. With that analogy, at least we’d have been calling a spade a spade. Because the truth is, if you have dementia, your brain is crap. And even if you can’t smell it right this minute, it still stinks.”

Graeme Simsion, The New York Times bestselling author of The Rosie Project, praised The Things We Keep, with these words: “A compelling read that touches on important themes, not least the different forms that love may take.”

TTWK Cover

The things we keep is a book to read and read again. Both funny and sad, it’s a page-turner I raced through, but a book that I didn’t want to end. I don’t know if Hepworth has first-hand knowledge of Alzheimer’s or if she just has a brilliant imagination. Whatever, she has captured what I think I see happening in my husband as the disease increases its grip.  And, yes, it stinks.

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The things we keep, Sally Hepworth, pp. 21, St. Martin’s Press ©2015

Header photo: Violas overrun my flower beds.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

What lurks in the shadows of his mind?

He sat across from me. The restaurant was very crowded, very noisy. Talking wasn’t possible, not really. But Peter kept trying to converse. I reminded him we seldom talk across our own dinner table, so it doesn’t matter if we don’t talk when we’re out.

“But, it’s different,” he said, “when we’re somewhere else.”

“I can’t hear a word you’re saying anyway,” I reminded him.

He nodded and sat back. He studied a spot on the wall behind my head. I watched his face. The V-shaped creases between his brows deepened, his left eye twitched, he shook his head slightly. He was far away.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

He shook his head again. “I’m trying to remember what it was like when I first came here.”

“To America?”

“Yes. Things have changed, but I can’t remember…”

“But that was in 1968! Nearly fifty years ago.”

He nodded.

“I’m going to have to learn to read your mind,” I said.

His eyes brightened. He smiled. “Well, if you do, tell me what you find in there.”

His remark was so apt we broke into laughter. The people at the next table must have wondered what was so funny. If they only knew.

Header photo: Peter, tube station near V&A Museum, London, 2009

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Sweet tooth, Sweetheart?

Toothpaste-PeopleHe squeezes the bottom, I squeeze the middle…of the toothpaste, that is. Who squeezes where has never been a problem in our marriage.

What is a problem these days is Peter’s obsession about having toothpaste. In spite of the tube on the sink and a new one in the cupboard, he always writes “toothpaste” (actually, touthpaste) on his ever present shopping list. He used to walk the two blocks to the grocery, but he doesn’t go on his own anymore. Neither does he give me his list which always includes string as well. I don’t understand that either.

His toothpaste concerns befuddle me. I wonder, does he remember rationing as a child during World War II? Toothpaste wasn’t rationed in England or here, but in both countries a purchaser had to turn in the used metal tube in order to purchase another. I remember my mother carefully slitting the tube open to scrape out the last traces of toothpaste. I thought she was being too particular, but apparently that was the only way she could buy more. The metal was recycled for the war effort.

Even though we have a drawerful of the toothbrushes the dental hygienist gives us, toothbrushes are always on his list too. About once a month he goes to the grocery with me. Grocery-getting is my least favorite of all household tasks because it is so labor intensive. Plus, keeping my husband in sight is like tracking a three-year-old in a toy store. He doesn’t think it’s a problem, so I try not to complain.

When we finally meet up, my large cart is overflowing. Peter’s small one has only beer and a Hershey bar inside. I ask about toothpaste.

“It’s OK,” he always says, “I’ll get it another time.”

Maybe he puts toothpaste on the list to justify the Hersey bar? He used to buy flowers occasionally, but now it’s chocolate for himself. And he doesn’t share.

Even this silly story makes me laugh, sad though it is.

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Header photo: Peter always enjoys lunch out.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Tail of a dog.

Almost every Wednesday for the past four years, Peter and Nobby have visited area nursing homes with Bill, Peter’s faithful companion.  Nobby is the star of the weekly events, of course, and he luxuriates in the cuddles.

Last week, Bill arrived on time, as he always does, and Peter was ready, though he usually is not. As they headed out the door, I yelled, “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

Peter turned. “I don’t think so…,” he said.

I pointed to Nobby. “What about him?”

“Oh, is he going?” he asked, as if this were something new.

Well, yes,” I said. “It’s Wednesday.” Peter shook his head, disgusted with his drifting memory. Bill and I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of Peter walking into the nursing home, red leash in hand and no dog attached.

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More and more often these days I have to remind Peter — make that nag — that it’s time for Nobby’s walk. This morning, Nobby waited patiently by the basement door. When I called to Peter, he said, “Yes, yes, I’m coming.” Nobby flip-flopped his tail hopefully.

Finally Peter came up from the basement. I heard him fiddling with the leash. After a spate of muttering from Peter and a few yelps from Nobby, I went to investigate. They were in the laundry room. Peter was laughing so hard tears were streaming down his face. “Helped when I put the leash on the right end,” he said, sputtering.

“What, you mean you put it on his back end?”

“Yes, and he didn’t like it.”

“Poor dog! I’m sure he didn’t!” I said. “How would you like a harness around your nether region?”

Peter grimaced. Nobby got two treats.DSC00224_2

Header photo: Nobby at Pandapas Pond.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘I’m still here, but yet I’m gone…’*

At Leslie’s birthday celebration, one conversation centered on movies that induce tears. Granddaughter Samantha, a real ham when she wants to be, told us about a “romantic comedy” she’d seen that had a horrific ending.  She was indignant. She sobbed. When Leslie’s friend Kenna added her observations and her tears to the story, the rest of us howled.  I seldom cry, and “Lassie come home” and “The Fighting Sullivans” are the only movies that moved me to tears, ever.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 3.02.42 PM“I’ll be me” is the 2014 film about country singer Glen Campbell and his Alzheimer’s-inspired farewell tour. It has been in theaters, but I found it on Netflix.

I watched it secretly. I didn’t want Peter to watch me watching it, even though I don’t think he would recognize himself in Campbell. I’ve slowly come around to admitting to myself that my husband has Alzheimer’s, though I say “dementia” to him if he questions why he can’t remember things. Dementia is an umbrella, Alzheimer’s, a hurricane that turns the umbrella inside out.

When Campbell was diagnosed in 2011, he chose, with wife Kim’s encouragement, to have his farewell tour filmed. He wanted people to know he had the disease, but could still sing and play guitar. “Hell, I’m not done yet,” he said.

A camera was there to follow him as his brain was scanned using the newest and most definitive diagnostic techniques. The camera was in the doctor’s office when he and Kim heard the dreaded words: “Highly probable that you have Alzheimer’s Disease.” Cameras followed him on his final tour that was to be three to five weeks, but turned into 151 performances worldwide. As long as the singer could keep going without too many hiccups his wife, children, and musicians thought he should continue doing what he loved.

My husband can’t sing, though he thinks he can, and he doesn’t have an entourage to bolster him. But his sense of humor — wacky, corny — is like Campbell’s.  Peter is handling his downward spiral the way Campbell does: hiding behind stoicism, silliness, and wild excuses. Bluffing, in other words.

Campbell is 78, a year older than Peter. The singer can no longer put words together intelligibly — aphasia — though he still plays his guitar. Peter has a hard time finding words and seldom says much, especially in a group. He’s never been a talker, so his lack of conversation is nothing new to those of us who know him.

The film was a Bandaid to my soul. Seeing that Campbell continues to clown around the way he always has, using goofiness to camouflage his fading memory, was like watching my husband. Peter’s clowning not only saves us — it’s impossible not to laugh — but it lets him think he’s fooling me and anyone else who’s around. Occasionally, a look crosses his face that says, I know I’m being silly, but it’s all I have left.

Some of Kim Campbell’s asides resonate. In two scenes, there are shots of the singer holding up plates and licking them clean. In a cutaway, she says, “I get so mad at him when he does that…I tell him it’s bad manners…I go into the pantry with my plate and sit on a stool to eat.” Later, she says tearfully, “I know he can’t help it, but I don’t like to see him that way.” Her words helped me feel better about my own reactions to  my daily triggers.

The singer now calls his wife of 32 years Mrs. Campbell. Her laugh is sad.

“I guess my message to caregivers is, stop to look on the bright side …. Make the best of a bad situation.…” When asked about the message, she said, “This film is funny…uplifting. Yes, it deals with Alzheimer’s, but it’s not a downer…not depressing. You learn a lot and it’s very educational. … We want people to know that it’s just full of laughter. Because people might go ‘Oh, it’s about Alzheimer’s. I don’t want to go see this film.'”

“I’ll be me” is funny, yes, but I confess, it’s now on my list of movies that make me cry. It is a must-see.

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*First line of “I’m not gonna miss you,” the last song Glen Campbell recorded.
Songwriters: Julian Raymond and Glen Campbell.
Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., BMG Rights Management US, LLC
“I’ll be me” directed by James Keach; produced by Trevor Albert and James Keach

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.