Bright spots in down days.

There have been upsets in the past few weeks that nearly brought me to my knees. I won’t dwell on the details here, now, because there were bright spots that made the period tolerable.

Weeding, usually a chore, gave Peter and me reason to smile. I looked out his window last week and noticed the flower beds had been invaded by tall, prickly weeds that were about to flower and overrun the space. “Let’s go out and tackle them,” I said. He was on his way before I finished my sentence. We worked for an hour and pulled a huge pile for someone else to pick up!

The next day I mentioned to Peter’s longtime helper Mark that Peter wanted to dig up the beds and plant something nice. That very afternoon, by the time I arrived, they’d shopped for flowers and planted them in a large red pot Mark brought from home. A mini-sunflower, blue balloon flowers, and fushia Million Bells now brighten Peter’s view.

Happy in a flower pot.

Another time one of the aides made me laugh when she said that my husband has “favorites” he pushes along the hall in their wheelchairs. The thought that my husband was pushing the “old dears” (a kindly English expression) absolutely astounded me!

Happy on wheels.

Another evening, as he walked me towards the exit, he stage-whispered, “Watch out for ‘im.” He nodded toward another resident who used a walker to toddle along. “‘E’s up to no good.” The other fellow watched Peter out of the corner of his eye, and when Peter drew abreast, they pointed their index fingers at each other and said, “Pow! Pow!”

Happy are six-year-olds playing cowboys.

Another of Peter’s carers was outside watering plants yesterday. “Look who’s out there,” Peter said. His smile was incandescent.

“I see,” I said, “do you want to go help her?”

“I’m going,” he said, and headed to the door. “Oops!” he said and stopped long enough to kiss me. “Bye, luv, see you next time.” He was gone.

Sometimes even “gone” can be happy.

Header photo: A neighbor’s sunny peonies make me smile.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

Always laugh when you can.

Thunder woke me this morning. A grim start to an anniversary, although this isn’t an anniversary to celebrate, no. A year ago today I had Peter admitted to memory care. Although he hasn’t been able to remember the day, the month or the year for a long time, I think, if he could remember April 18, 2018 and if he could express himself, he would say it was the worst day of his life.

I do remember and I shudder, but I don’t dwell there.  That’s both good and bad, I suppose.

I’m glad to say that Peter is doing well, better than most, I think. The problems he had those final months at home—falling, getting lost, increasing confusion, hallucinations, anger— are gone. But cured? Of course not. Living apart from the heightened tension and stress at home as I tried to cope with our situation helped both of us enormously.

Settled in now, the staff and residents love him and his silly pranks and goofiness. At last week’s Prom Peter was, as he always has been, the life of the party.  He thanks me and hugs me the way he used to do every time I visit.

My husband’s single-minded determination to problem-solve and his innate sense of humor have carried him through these very rough twelve months. It’s as if he grits his teeth mentally and reckons with how his life is now. He rarely asks when he can go home, but when he does I redirect as best I can, then watch as he turns inside himself, furrows his brow and deals with the knowledge.  After a couple minutes he shakes his head, smiles sadly, and says, “Oh well.” And that’s it. He’s dealt with it.

Peter thrives in care as much as anyone who has a dementia can thrive. Perhaps he thrives too much! His entire adult life he weighed 145 pounds. He loved to boast he could still wear clothes he had when he was twenty. He’s now a fraction under 150 and he’s popped the buttons on his trousers and shirts!  My formerly skinny husband has love handles!

Over the past year I’ve posted about the tough times, and there were lots, but if I were to count, I think there were more light-hearted posts than not. I want to believe that.

Neither of us would have gotten through the year so well without laughter. If laughs were available in a pill, they might be a cure for dementia. 

[Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD, Associate Professor of Family Services & Gerontology at the University of Northern Iowa, writes a hugely helpful blog. Her April 15, 2019 post, What I think caregivers… need to know…”, was exactly what I needed to read this week. Do follow her!]

Header photo: This dogwood lightened my mood as I walked Nobby this morning after the rain.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

How lovely are thy branches?

The Christmas morning clatter—save the boxes, keep the ribbon, recycle the tissue, read the directions, where’s the receipt, the vac is clogged—is a week in the past. As I write, the new year is just hours away.  I can’t say I’m sorry to see the old one out.

This dwindling year has been an annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth II defined her 1992. She referred to her children’s marital follies and questionable clandestine issues, as well as the costly fire in Windsor Castle, one of her favorites.

Even though this has been an awful year for the Clarke family, we’ve found bright spots to keep us laughing. The house didn’t burn down either.

One of Peter’s new helpers, fascinated by his natural affinity with children, observed him interacting with a little boy. They stood on the fringe of a crowd waiting to see the Nutcracker ballet. I wasn’t there but I’m sure my husband’s eyes twinkled while he made silly faces and crouched to the two-year-old’s eye level. More than once, the boy announced loudly to anyone else in range that this, pointing to Peter, was his New Best Friend.

When I heard the story I smiled in spite of myself and my fretting.

For months I’d wondered how, or if, I would cope, how Peter would do, how would we all manage during the holidays. But, miraculously, my husband had settled into his new “digs” and no longer asked, “Is this my room?” every time I led him inside.

With a lot of propping up from family and friends, I spun through Christmas with more good cheer than I’d thought I could muster. I dashed and twirled and muddled, but in many ways, the week was actually one of the best we’ve ever had. The eight of us kept him busy with meals and snacks, card games, walks, movies, billiards, and chatter. Not that Peter talked much, but he smiled, chuckling, as he listened. If he had been able to channel my dad, my husband might have said, “Well, someone has to listen.”

Header: In 2017, Peter lifted a dug-up pine to bring home with help from Leslie who wore red and white striped camouflage.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

‘To-mah-to!’ ‘To-may-to!’

Peter looked very guilty yesterday when I asked about the green tomatoes basking in the sun on his windowsill. My husband doesn’t like tomatoes, ripe or not, although he did eat some fried green ones accidentally one time.

“Tsk, you picked these from that raised garden outside, didn’t you?” I said. I pictured him skulking along next to the tomato plants that had languished all summer in a too-shady spot. Some resident—maybe several residents—had planted not only tomatoes, but cucumbers, squash, strawberries, and a petunia.

Peter looked like a naughty little boy. I could hardly keep a straight face. “Whoever planted them,” I added, “won’t get to eat them.” I threw in an extra “tsk” for good measure.

“Well! They can have them,” he said, shuddering, “I don’t even like to-mah-toes.”

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘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. 

Two laughs are better than none.

Laughs have been scarce lately. Stress, angst and tears blot out any chuckles my husband’s quick humor would usually egg on.

Twice this week, laughs ruled.

I visit nearly every day, in spite of advice from daughters, doctors and friends. As soon as I walk in — I know I shouldn’t do this either — I immediately begin to put the place to rights. I grumble, yes I do, as I put his clothes away, plug in t.v. and lamps, remove socks from his toothbrush holder, and find missing photos, pencils, and domino’s score pads.  Wednesday, in addition to the usual chaos his nightly dismantling causes, the comforter was turned so that the ends were dragging the floor off the sides of the bed.

“Did the aides make your bed or did you?”

“Is it right or wrong?” he asked.

“It’s the wrong way ’round,” I said.

They made it,” he said quickly.

We laughed like we haven’t laughed in weeks.

The next day, his new doctor visited. “I’m Dr. K,” she said. She held out her hand asking, “Would you like me to call you Peter or Mr. Clarke or Dr. Clarke?”

“Hm-m, Dr. Clarke, I think. Sounds good.” She laughed and we did too.

A second laugh in two days, wow! Can’t beat that with a stick, as his ol’ granny might have said.

 

Header: Peter wore his Union Jack necktie to watch the royal wedding May 19. He enjoyed the tea and biscuits as much as I enjoyed the wedding.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Pick up sticks? Who me?

On this frigid April day I never dreamed I’d have reason to write a sequel to my most recent post, “Between the sticks.” I expected to be writing about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This morning I took my husband for his annual check-up with the dermatologist. Right away, Dr. J asked Peter if he’d been alright, had anything to report?

“No, I don’t have anything, but I’ll be she does, ” Peter said, nodding at me.  The doctor and his nurse laughed, as they always do, at Peter’s quick humor.

Dr J looked to me for answers. I told him about the several spots on Peter’s head, ears and arm, and some on his back. He nodded and began checking methodically. It was so cold in the exam room that the nurse hadn’t given Peter a gown. “Too cold,” she said, “doctor will just pull your shirt up in back to examine you.”

Turns out, Peter had put two shirts on — another cause for chuckles — so pulling them up was a struggle. Dr. J took one look at his back, one spot in particular, did a double take and said, “That’s a tick!

“A TICK?” I yelped.

“Sure is,” he said, as he asked  the nurse to fetch tick-removing supplies. He numbed the area, pulled the little bugger out, then drowned it in alcohol. Then he wrote a ‘script for Doxycycline Hyclate. “Better to be proactive and start this right away, than to wait six weeks for the lab analysis to finish,” he explained.

Lyme Disease is the unwanted gift a tick bite brings to people and their pets after they’ve feasted on infected deer and mice. I felt foolish for having seen the spot but hadn’t realized it was a tick. At least it wasn’t engorged and, really, it looked like the other two spots I’d noticed. Thank goodness they weren’t ticks as well.

Peter and I don’t need anymore stumbling blocks right now, but try explaining a tick and what its bite can cause is like explaining why pigs don’t fly to a two-year-old.

“No more picking up sticks in the woods,” I told him.

“Why?” he asked. I explained ticks live in woodsy areas. I explained that we give Nobby tick medicine every month to keep him safe, and Nobby doesn’t even have access to the woods.

“But I don’t go in the woods,” Peter said. “I never do.”

I rolled my eyes and didn’t try to explain further. Too much information is as bad, in our case, as no information at all.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

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. 

 

Laughs every day are harder to find.

Maybe it’s the shorter days, the longer nights, the unseasonable cold eight weeks ago, the unseasonable heat this month, or maybe the light at the end of the tunnel burned out, but I’ve really had to search for laughs to drag me, us, along recently.

One evening.

Leslie, Martin, Peter and I had a Friday night dinner and movie date, but there was a line out the door of the restaurant we’d chosen. We had little time to spare, so we ended up at the one place I’d said no to: Red Robin. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but Peter had been there twice that week.

We’d no sooner ordered than another waitress came by and skidded to a stop beside our table. “You didn’t come say hello to me,” she said, grinning at Peter. “What’s up with that?”

Peter laughed. “I didn’t know I was coming here.”

“I’ll let you off,” she said, “I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight, but someone called in.” She looked at the rest of us. “He makes us laugh ordering ‘cish and fips’ when he comes for lunch.” Peter grinned. They make such a fuss over him at Red Robin. The bonhomie reminds him of an English pub.

Later that evening.

We were about one hour, thirty minutes into a one hour thirty-seven minute mildly entertaining movie. Peter fidgeted and twisted in his seat. Bored, I wondered? Hm, no. “Do you need the loo?” I whispered.

He was annoyed that I asked. But suddenly he got up, felt his way along the row, down the few steps, and he was gone. “He won’t know how to get back,” Leslie said, as if I didn’t know. I groped my way out and followed.

In the hallway Peter fumbled at a door marked with the international symbol for family restroom. “Can I go in here?” he asked. I nodded. He dashed inside.

Even though the movie was a bit of a ho-hummer, I wanted to see the ending. I paced outside the theater door, then noticed the sign above said “Blade Runner.” I looked around. None of the doors’ signs said “Home Again.” Ack! Was I lost? By the time Peter emerged, I’d realized our film only ran at 7:30. “Blade Runner” would be shown at 10:00 in the same theater.

Back inside, just before the closing credits, I told Leslie I’d gotten confused. Of course she laughed as she does, but I didn’t try to explain to Peter. He would’ve cracked up knowing I’d been lost…momentarily.

The next morning.

Peter was in the kitchen clattering around. I pictured dishes suffering new chips and silverware headed for the waste bin instead of the dishwasher. I went to check. Ah-h!

“Peter, those haven’t washed yet,” I yelped when I realized he’d taken dirty plates, glasses and silverware from the dishwasher and put them into cupboards and drawers. He growled and stomped away. I reclaimed the dirty unwashed.

That evening I took a couple salad bowls off the shelf. Both were encrusted with bits of tomato and lettuce. Ready made salad, right out of the cupboard! What a concept.

Peter had the last laugh, because his mistake was my fault. I hadn’t switched the color-coded sign I stick on the dishwasher from  yellow/clean  to pink/dirty. How was he supposed to know the things he’d removed were dirty?

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Interludes: Laughs count.

Peter had just gotten out of bed when Bill arrived for their Wednesday morning nursing home outing with Nobby. Never one to be rushed, especially not in the morning, Peter sipped his coffee, nibbled at his toast, and wiped (and wiped and wiped) the kitchen countertop.

He will not be dissuaded from that task once he starts. Bill and I smiled at each other.

“‘Mrs. Clarke,'” I said, “are you about finished?”

Bill chuckled. “He’s a good little ‘housewife,’ isn’t he?”

Peter, his back to us, never missed a beat. “Well someone has to do it, don’t they?” He turned slightly to aim a dagger-like look in my direction. Bill chortled and slapped his knee.

If I hadn’t needed the laugh, any laugh at all, I would’ve been upset by what my husband implied. Humph, as if I wasn’t the one he’d tried to convince not to bother about keeping the house clean and tidy all these years.

* * *

Lunchtime at a favorite restaurant the same Wednesday. Peter tried his well worn joke on our waitress, a sweet young lady who’d been working at the Blue Apron for just a week. When she asked how our our meals were, he said, “Oh, terrible.”

“Oh, you’re a tease, aren’t you?” She caught on quickly. His face turned red as he laughed. I rolled my eyes at her and shook my head as if to say, “I can’t do anything with him.

Later, a waiter asked the same question. Peter took a deep breath and said loudly, forcefully, “Terrible, just terrible.” He even frowned.

The young man howled. “Y’know, my fiance told me she didn’t know how she’d be able to deal with me when I’m old and gray, because I’m just like you. I love to tease and laugh. I want to be just like you when I’m your age.”

I rolled my eyes again, but I couldn’t help but laugh.

* * *

Later that afternoon, completely tuckered out from shopping for a refrigerator, I put my arms around my husband, and lay my head on his shoulder. “I need a hug,” I said.

He’d been staring at a kitchen cupboard as he does when he’s trying to remember what he was looking for. He shrugged my arms off and said, “And I need some bread.”

That laugh wasn’t as good as a hug, but it helped nonetheless..

Peter tries to decide what to order.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.