‘Peaks and valleys,’ he said.

We were an instant couple, Peter and I, when we met forty-some years ago. At the time, I was a struggling single mom with two young daughters to raise. “Peaks and valleys,” Peter would counsel when I fretted, “life is all peaks and valleys.”

I’ve thought about his mantra recently and wondered, would he even understand the meaning of the words now. As his dementia worsens the valleys are deeper and wider, the peaks, fewer.

A week ago, we teetered on the edge of an abyss.


The day started beautifully, definitely a “peak.” Soft warm breezes encouraged me to garden and Leslie came for lunch and cards. Perfect. Peter used her visit as an excuse to take his lunch to the basement where he’d watch t.v. Two hours later, when I yelled to tell him tea was ready, the silence below screamed. The basement was dark.

I dashed upstairs calling his name. Gone.

Gone!

He’d sneaked out while Leslie and I sat just outside. I use “sneaked” advisedly because he’s done it a few times. He has a “stealth” mode that allows him to slip away. Nobby, usually at his side, wasn’t with him because for the previous four days he hadn’t walked at all. His woeful puppy eyes told us his old arthritic knees ached.

Leslie took charge immediately, while I, heart-hammering and generally useless, attempted to follow her orders. She called the police, family, friends, told me to send photos of Peter to her, posted Facebook messages. With three photos on her phone, she sped off to nearby businesses — grocery, restaurants, bakery, wine shop, hairdresser. I stayed home to answer phone calls and texts, to be there in case he came back on his own. I called friends to be on the lookout and soon, unbidden, Peter’s carers, Karen, Bill and Mark, showed up to offer help and support.


The power of Facebook startled me, a hesitant user. Re-posts popped up quickly. Granddaughter Samantha, who lives in Washington, DC, has a friend with a niece who’s interning with our local EMT squad. Some four hours after I discovered he was gone, the young woman, thanks to her aunt’s post, spotted Peter on the steps of a church on the northern edge of town.

Meanwhile, son-in-law Martin, directed by Sam 267 miles away, went to collect Peter. Sam was still on the phone with her dad when Peter got into his car. “Want to talk to him?” Martin asked Sam.

She said yes, even knowing her Dad-Dad hates phones. “How you doin’, Dad-Dad?”

He chuckled. “Well, Luv, I thought I was going to get away,” he said, “but they caught me.” Hours walking in the hot sun, no hat, badly sunburned, no water,  tired and confused, he was still ready with a joke. Just after seven Martin brought him home. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he said.

He hugged me so tightly I feared for my ribs. “No, not in trouble, but Steps. Will. Be. Taken,” I said, raising my left eyebrow to high-threat-warning level. He shook his head and gazed at the roomful of people without seeing them.

“Why did I do that, where did I go,” he asked over and over.

“If you don’t know why, then no one does,” I said, “and where you were is a mystery to all of us.”

Steps have been taken. Leslie installed door alarms that screech when the doors are opened and I’ve chosen a bracelet-style gps that will help me keep track of him. He’ll hate it.

In the meantime, we walk Nobby together. Peter doesn’t like it because he wants to be out in the neighborhood on his own with his dog. I don’t like it either because the half hour they walked was thirty minutes to myself, to read, write, or do nothing at all.

In that one afternoon, our lives changed more dramatically than the day, years ago, when the doctor diagnosed “early dementia.”

From now on the peaks will be ever smaller, the valleys, broader and more difficult to traverse.

Header photo: Victoria Falls, Zambia, September, 2005.
Bottom photo: Alaska Range, Mt. KcKinley in the distance, 2006.

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

Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the best you can.

Notices for books by, for and about caregivers show up in my email every day. I follow blogs by women  who are caregivers, and by experts who advise them…advise us. The common thread is, be kind to yourself and remember, you’re doing the best you can at a very hard job.

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Monday, Leslie collected Peter at ten for Christmas shopping and lunch. She volunteered for the job. She, and Carolynn too, always lift his spirits and make him laugh with their teasing. I’m sure he enjoyed the day, even though he didn’t remember where they’d been.

After they’d gone, I spent a long hour on the phone straightening out a niggling problem, the sort of thing I despise doing. After that, I thought, I should go to the grocery. But, no, dammit, I would get coffee at Our Daily Bread, a favorite haunt. I’m so glad I did. While I dawdled over coffee and cranberry/orange scone, I read two excellent story drafts by writer friends. Un-in-ter-rupt-ed. I felt a bit guilty that I enjoyed being there without Peter, but I confess, I savored it.

As I was about to leave, a young woman waved from across the room. Stephanie, a gardener friend, worked her way to my table and gave me a hug. “So nice to see you out like this,” she said. “I know how hard things must be, but obviously, you have ‘time off’ today.” She’d just been to Florida visiting her father who has Alzheimer’s too. “I understand what you’re going through,” she added.

Stephanie, with her million-dollar smile and twinkling eyes, helped make my day.

After that, I did get a few things at Kroger’s. While in the card aisle, looking for an anniversary card for my husband, a wheelchair-bound, sweet elderly lady asked me to help her find a Christmas card for a dear friend. I picked out several, but cost was an issue. She really liked an eight dollar one, but wanted something in the five dollar range. I found one with a message she loved. She thanked me over and over.

I hope I helped make her day.

Leslie stayed for a cup of tea after she brought Peter home even though I knew she had lots to do at her house.

She made my day all over again.

This morning, both daughters texted, Today is the shortest day of the year. Won’t be long until time to cut the grass, as my dad always said on the Winter Solstice.

Their reminders made me chuckle and made this day.

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

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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.

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

What can I do?

My brain had short circuited. I clutched my head and tried to figure out which problem to tackle next.  Just then, Peter peeked around the door. “Can I do anything to help?” he asked.

My pitiful smile didn’t reach my eyes. “Could you give me some peace of mind?” I asked. “That would help.”

He chuckled. “You want a piece of my mind?” he said.

The tears that had threatened dried up. Just that brief exchange lightened my mood.

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Photos: Sailing to Alaska (2006)

 

‘Blue skies, smilin’ at me, nothin’ but blue skies do I see…’

If only the lyrics from Irving Berlin’s “Blue skies” were true at our house. Phrases and actions cause repeats — I call them rePetes — in Peter’s brain. Picking up tiny sticks in the yard and endless sweeping on our brick terrace are two of them.

Lately, with November’s crisp weather bringing brilliant skies, Peter has become enamored of the beautiful blue. “Not a cloud in the sky,” he says over and over. “I’ve never seen such a blue sky.”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful day,” I agree.
“Look at that. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Have you ever seen such a blue sky?”
“Mm-mmm.”

I guess there are worse things to be stuck on than the beauty above us.

“Blue days, all of them gone,
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on

Bluebirds singin’ a song
Nothin’ but bluebirds all day long…”
Ah, if only.

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While trying to find the perfect blue sky photo to use above, I came across this lovely little poem and accompanying picture. Thus inspired I thought, why not go outside and take a photo of our “I’ve-never-seen-such-a-blue-sky” sky? So I did, and laughed at myself for taking so long to think of it.

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a bluebird’s wing
by Kathleen Everett
Gray morning fog lifts
revealing the November sky
cloudless
clear
color of a bluebird’s wing
an autumn aster
your eyes

 

 

Header photo: “Not a cloud in the sky” taken by me, 11/14/15.
“Blue Skies” lyrics, Irving Berlin
“a bluebird’s wing” Kathleen Everett, The Course of Our Seasons ©2011-2015
Feather ©Rakkla

‘In November, people are good to each other…’

I’ve always liked November’s skill at blowing the warm months away with icy jabs, but I didn’t know it was special for anyScreen Shot 2015-11-06 at 4.21.38 PM reason other than Veteran’s Day, our granddaughter’s birthday and Thanksgiving. A surprise delivery of flowers from “The Soul Sisters” a couple days ago changed that. The card was inscribed “Happy National Caregivers’ Month, for the woman who defines caring.”

Me?

I assumed sisters meant Carolynn and Leslie, so right away, I took a selfie and sent them a thank you. Les replied she wished she could take credit, but she could not. Later, Carolynn wrote, “They’re from Robin and me, Mom, we’re soul sisters. Leslie and I are are blood sisters.”  She said she’d never heard of National Family Caregivers Month either, but Robin had.

Leave it to Robin. Carolynn’s best friend is probably the caring-est person I’ve ever known. She’s a go-getter caregiver, a whirlwind, a hurricane.

Peter answered the door when the flowers were delivered. I figured someone was selling something so I was shocked to see a pleasant young man holding a bright arrangement of autumn flowers. “Are you Judith?” he asked.

“Yes-s…”

“These are for you. Have a wonderful caregiver’s month.” I managed to thank him before he bounded off.

Peter’s chin was glued to my shoulder when I opened the card. “Who are they from?” he asked. When I said “Carolynn and Leslie” he wondered why they’d sent flowers? “Is it Clarke with an ‘e’?” he asked. “Maybe there’s another Judith Clarke on this street. Are you sure they’re for you?” he pestered.

I didn’t want to get into an explanation about caregivers, which he wouldn’t understand anyway, so I said, “Even if they’re not for me, I’m gonna’ keep ’em.”

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I kept them.

 

Title: line from In November, a book by childrens’ author Cynthia Rylant.
Leaf graphic: Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry

 

Random kindnesses. Observed. Received.

A young man of twenty-five or so stood in front of me in the quick check-out lane at the grocery. In his right hand he held a plastic bag of groceries, in his left, red roses. When it was his turn he lay the roses carefully on the conveyor. “These are for you,” he said to the checker.

“What about the things in your hand?” she asked.

“No, I already paid for these earlier. The flowers are for you,” he explained. “You said you were having a bad day…”

She was flustered, but picked the flowers up and smelled them. “Really? For me?” She rang them up, he gave her cash and left quickly. She looked at me astounded. “It wasn’t that bad a day,” she said, “but now it’s a lot better.”

Random act of kindness, observed.

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Yesterday, following a week of bitter cold and snow, I was out early shoveling walks and driveway. A young man and his mother walked carefully towards me. He was holding her arm. We exchanged “Good mornings” and observations about the cold, then they got into the big gray pick-up truck that had been parked in front of our house, off and on, all week.

I kept shoveling.

Walks fiinished, I was working my way back along the drive when I noticed the truck had returned to the space carved amidst the plowed-up snow. “Hello again,” the man called out. “I thought I should introduce myself,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind me parking there, but I can’t get in and out of my driveway right now. It’s so steep and icy.”

No problem, I told him. Then he asked if he could finish shoveling our drive for me, and assured me it would be a pleasure to help.

I was gobsmacked. “Thanks,” I said, “but I actually like to shovel snow.” I explained we’d moved here from upstate New York and were used to deep snows. “Besides,” I said, “my husband will be out soon to finish this off.”

“You sure?” he asked. I nodded, he wished me a good day, and walked off.

Random act of kindness, received.

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When I told Peter about the incident, he wondered if I’d told the fellow that I like toDSC00781 shovel snow. “Yes, and I told him that if you didn’t get outside and do your part, I’d bury you in a snow drift and leave you until spring.” I handed him his jacket and shoved him towards the door.

I knew he’d laugh, and he did.

Two good days in a row.

Sometimes I think of my  husband’s dementia as a scrim painted to look like a lowering storm. Occasionally, a break in the clouds appears — a rip in the backdrop – to let brilliant light stream through.

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Sometimes a ripped scrim is a good thing.

We had two brilliant days this past week.

When Peter is happy and busy he whistles a tuneless few notes over and over. Those two days he bustled around the house, tidying here, straightening there, always whistling. He cleaned the fireplace, laid a fire, made lists, and never once, did he stand in the middle of the kitchen trying to remember where the coffee mugs were. He hasn’t bustled in months!

Two whole days!

He instigated conversation about our grandchildren, Sam and Miah, asked if Carolynn and Bill were snowed-in up north, remembered the recent visit by friends Shelia and Jerry, and willingly watched two Netflix movies in one evening.

Of course it didn’t last, but it was good while it did.

This morning around nine o’clock he was watching football, Manchester United vs Chelsea, when I told him was going for my walk. I went up the hill to the golf course and meandered around enjoying the bright day and the brisk wind. When I got back after nearly an hour, Peter met me at the door. “Martin was just here,” he said, “but I missed him. I left because I thought you were here.”

“I went for my walk, remember? But if you missed him, how do you know he was here?”

“I saw him when I was taking Nobby out.”

“You didn’t stay to talk to him?”

“No, I was going out. He seemed to know what he was doing.”

Then I saw a scribbled note from Mart: Judy, soup & ham in fridge.

I called Leslie to thank her for the soup and asked for the rest of the story. She’d needed to borrow my blender, Martin knew where it was, so it didn’t matter that Peter left the house as he arrived. I apologized. “An hour is a long time for Peter to remember something, Mom,” she said.

Later, Peter came and stood beside me as I was writing this. His head drooped, his arms hung limp at his sides. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know. There’s ‘stuff’ in the fridge, and I don’t know why Martin was here.”

“It’s all sorted, don’t worry. He brought soup and borrowed the blender. It’s OK.” He allowed me to hug him.

“It is Saturday, isn’t it?” he asked. I shook my head. “But football’s on…Sunday then?” I nodded.

He sighed. “I can’t remember things for ten minutes!” he mumbled into my shoulder.

“Hm-m, ten minutes might be stretching it,” I said.

He laughed, gave me a little hug, and went back to the telly. By this time ManU had whomped Liverpool, 3-nil, and Swansea and Tottenham were playing.

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Tottenham 2, Swansea 1.

 

 

Yet another good thing.

My husband has always been a picky eater. He has always insisted he is selective, not picky. As long as there’s meatpotatoesveg on his plate, he’ll clean it, he says. If there’s gravy, so much the better, even lumpy gravy! He doesn’t like things that sound as if they were bought at a health food store — quinoa, wheat germ, tofu, edamame — although he has eaten all of them unknowingly, and liked them.

The list of things Peter will not eat is varied: tomatoes, the teeniest, eensiest bit of fat, cucumbers, pasta, rice, cheesecake, peanut butter, mac and cheese, cornbread, dill pickles, quiche, cranberries…I could go on.

Nowdays, because he doesn’t — can’t — cook anymore, he eats what’s put in front of him. This change allows me to fix meals I like more often instead of always catering to the meatpotatoesveg dictum.

Used to be, if I fixed pasta, which I love, he’d mutter and growl. Now we have it once a week or so and he doesn’t say a word. Maybe he doesn’t remember he never liked it, or maybe he likes it now, I don’t know. Other meals, I’ll sometimes fix two green veg, no potatoes, and substitute beans for meat. Not. A. Whimper.

Recently I prepared turkey cutlets and quartered red potatoes marinated in lemon juice, rosemary, and olive Screen shot 2014-10-30 at 6.05.01 PMoil. Cranberries I cooked in hard cider, with a smushy apple, and a bit of sugar. Yummy. I nearly fell off my chair when Peter not only cleaned his plate, but carefully scraped out the tiny bowl of cranberries I’d given him and served himself some more!

He pointed to the bowl and said, “Are they good for me?”

I nodded, he smiled, then licked his spoon.

Thanksgiving is upon us. Cranberries!

Another good thing to be thankful for — check

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Another good thing.


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For years, my husband has had bouts of hiccups that sometimes last for days. And sometimes his hiccups predict when he’s going to have a very bad head cold.

Such was the case a few weeks ago. Violent hiccups started in the evening, and by the next morning he could have starred in a Nyquil commercial — sneezing, coughing, aching — with hiccups thrown in for good measure. This went on day and night for four days. None of the usual “cures” work, not drinking from the opposite side of the glass, holding his breath, a scare, nor a spoonful of sugar.

Occasionally the hiccups stopped and I’d hope they’d ended. But I didn’t want to say anything lest I jinx him. “Doesn’t your chest hurt?” I asked midway through the ordeal.

“No, why?”

“I just think hiccuping so often would make your chest hurt.”Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 10.37.59 AM

“Hiccups? I don’t have hiccups!” he growled.

I shut up because, in that case, not remembering was a good thing. Never mind that in an hour they’d start again.

Stop.

 Start.

STOP!

The following week he didn’t remember the horrible cold nor the hiccups, and if his chest ever ached, he didn’t remember that either.

Sometimes, not remembering is a good thing, right?

Check … imagesor  not check? Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 5.27.36 PM