Right or wrong? Left or right? Here or there?

Thoughts about my ability to live in this new world where I’m practicing to be a widow rattle around in my head like stray coins clanking in the clothes dryer.

When will I, or will I ever, sleep on the other side of the bed. When will I, or will I ever, stop walking around the bed on my middle-of-the night treks to the bathroom, when I could just roll out the left side?

Will I ever sit on the other side of the kitchen table where Peter always sat?

Will I ever be able to clear the cedar closet of the suits he wore to work (once he realized he had to wear a suit to work) or the Burberry all-weather coat he never ever wore, or the cowboy boots we spent hours shopping for in Santa Fe and that were too nice to wear?

And will I ever stop being his caregiver?

The answer to all the above is, probably not. Anyway, Peter isn’t gone, he’s just removed from the life we lived together.

It just wouldn’t be right to sleep on the left side of our bed, or to change my path to the bathroom, or to sit on the opposite side of the kitchen table. And now, even though he’s in a care facility with round-the-clock coverage, his care really is still in my hands. Anyone in care or in hospital needs an advocate because the carers, the nurses, the aides can’t be everywhere, every time, all the time.

But that’s neither here nor there.

I have no choice but to be Peter’s caregiver as long as he lives—or as long as I do—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know, if our positions were reversed, he’d take care of me. Oh, he wouldn’t bring me tea and he wouldn’t fluff my pillow, but he would make me laugh.

I’ve learned from my husband how to laugh at myself and life and him, always him.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Lemons? Squeeze!

Just when I thought I couldn’t make any more lemonade from the lemons that landed in my juicer, encouragement from casual acquaintances has rejuvenated me.

All along, family and longtime friends have been supportive as Peter and I struggled along the hellish road paved with plaques and neuro-tangles. He is largely unaware that support is even needed, but I’ve welcomed every kind word, every smile, every hug, note, email or call. I’ve been surprised—no, amazed—by the helpful ideas and kindnesses from the pharmacist, Peter’s helpers Mark and Bill, the courtesy van driver, the mailman, the waiter, Nobby’s groomer, and from my daughters’ friends and colleagues, many of whom I don’t know.

Even though their main concern is for Peter, nearly all ask how I’m doing. Do you mind coming home to an empty house? one asks. Are you afraid in the evenings, asks another. Is it hard to eat alone? someone else wonders. How do you do all the things it took two of you to do before?

Actually, no, I don’t mind coming home to an empty house, no, I’m not afraid in the evenings, no, I don’t have a problem eating alone, and in reality, I’ve been taking care of the things we shared for a long time. Oh, I wish I didn’t have to deal with the taxes, or take care of the bills, or remember to get gas for the car and the lawnmower, or decide how much or how little to buy at the grocery.

My husband’s slow, ten-year decline forced me to get used to the idea that there was no way back. These past five years the downward tack has been more rapid and way worse.

In truth, I’ve been practicing to be a widow most of my adult life. I was a divorced mom with two young daughters in my thirties. Peter and I were in our early forties when he finally agreed to marriage—he dragged his feet for seven years. We’d never lived together, nor even in the same town, so marrying again took some getting used to for both of us. We were both married to GE too. He traveled a lot, but my job was local so I came home every night and walked the dog. Fred didn’t talk much but he was a nice companion.

Because I retired 10 years before Peter, I was still on my own most of the time. His travel schedule never eased, but I was fine working from home with Fred and new puppy named Decker for company.

But, when Peter retired he hadn’t forgotten I’d promised we could move back south. And suddenly we were together All The Time. No longer could I have what he dubbed “twigs and berries” for lunch, or pasta tossed with black olives, fresh tomatoes and fresh Parmesan for dinner. No, it was meatandpotatoes every evening. Home Together.

He spent days cycling, woodworking, gardening, puttering. I continued to read, write, garden and, a newfound luxury, lunch with friends. If we were home at noon, he worked a crossword puzzle while I read a book. At dinner we talked a bit, but chatters we are not.

Now, again, we don’t live together. I know it’s easier for me than for him. I’m in the same place—home—while he’s in a strange new environment that will never feel like home no matter how hard I try to make it seem so. He’s still as solitary as he ever was and so am I. The upside, and there is one, we talk more now than we ever did, we laugh as much, and the “lovey-dovey” stuff, Peter’s term, has returned. I visit four or five days a week, and I’m greeted with bear hugs and squeezes. Even though the situation isn’t good, and the reason for it is horrible, it isn’t as bad as it could be.

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

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

 

 

Love and loneliness sit together.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to write a post about Peter’s acceptance of his new wrist-hugging PALLess than two weeks after I introduced him, he rebelled:
He tries to take the “watch”off, by pulling, tugging, fiddling with the locked clasp. (I have the unlocking device.)
He purposely ignores and/or forgets — a bit of both, I think — the time I ask him to to return.
He gets mad when I pick him up after tracking him, way out of range, an hour later.
When I put a note on his watch to remind when to be home, he stuffs it in his pocket and forgets about it. As he would, of course.
He always insists he knows where he is when he’s out walking, but when I ask where, he says, “I don’t  know, but I know.” I actually understand what I think he’s trying to say.
When I pick him up after he and Nobby have been gone way too long, he doesn’t recognize me or my car. When I beckon to him, he waves politely, and keeps walking. Nobby knows and he’s tired. He drags Peter to the car.
Because my paper note didn’t work, I try to write on his hand. Angrily, belligerently, he jerks away. “The only option,” I say, “is that I walk with you.” I set the alarm on my phone for fifteen minutes and walk along. Though he’d insisted he would be back, when my alarm beeps, he says I didn’t tell him he was supposed to be home at a certain time.
“I will not be told when and where I can walk,” he says repeatedly. “You don’t tell me what I can and cannot do.” I try to make him understand that I want to make sure he’s safe. “We’ll see about that,” he mutters, stomping like a child.

Ah, I don’t blame him for any of it. He can’t help it, I know that. I’d hate it too. Everything, everything, about dementia — Alzheimer’s — sucks! I’d be way worse if I were in his shoes.

To anyone who has ever known my husband, these words don’t describe the lovable, affable Peter of their acquaintance, the man they worked with, laughed with, caroused with.

He isn’t the lovable, affable Peter any longer. He knows it. I know it. He hates it, I hate it. At least I still see brief glimpses, some sparkles and shy smiles of the man I fell in love with.

I created a piece that is a tribute to life and society. Love and loneliness are a part of society and The Lovers’ Bench combines them both. At one point or another in our lives, we all sit on this bench,” artist Lea Vivot says of the entranced couple and the lonely woman beside them.
Header: Lea Vivot’s “The Lover’s Bench,” Montreal’s Botannical Gardens, 2009.

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

‘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

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.

img_4789

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?


2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

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.

Van/AK DSC01354

Photos: Sailing to Alaska (2006)

 

Picking up sticks is about control.

These days, my husband attends to specific tasks he sets for himself whether they need doing or not, repeating the steps carefully, obsessively. I bite my tongue and turn away because I want to scream, “Please do something that helps. I’m doing everything and you’re picking up *#! sticks!”

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 4.29.40 PM

When I sat down to write this post, he was doing it again, right outside my window — collecting twigs that were blown off the trees during two days of high wind. In his mind, I think, he knows tiny sticks are something he can still control.

In my mind, I wish he’d remember I asked him to mow the grass. Grass-cutting is on the list, a list he checks every thirty minutes or so, but never remembers. I learned long ago, as most wives do, nagging doesn’t work, dementia or no.

Ever since he retired, Peter has cleared the dishes willingly after dinner, but now he’s become obsessive about the task. He won’t leave the house to walk the dog unless the job is done, even when I tell him I’ll clear. To be honest, he doesn’t like the way I clean up! I’m not as fussy as he is.

He wipes our countertops endlessly to “polish” them, but to do it he uses any grungy cloth he finds under the sink from the supply I keep to wipe splatters off the floor. When I showed him the special granite-cleaning cloth he scoffed, so I use it secretly with the special cleaner when he’s not around. He gets very offended if I do or say anything that suggests he’s not done a job correctly.

Once, when I made an even worse-than-usual mess baking bread, I had to leave it to attend to something else. When I returned to the kitchen, it was spotless. “Wow! Thank you for cleaning up my ‘bread mess,’” I said.

Screen shot 2014-09-22 at 6.22.25 PM

Peter’s eyes twinkled. He loves homemade bread. “Thank you for messing up my clean,” he said.

He’s still so quick, and of course I laughed.

Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 3.07.23 PM
So, no matter how frustrated I get, I try very hard to remember that my husband can’t help what is happening to him. I know he’d give anything, even his entire Mickey Mouse collection, to turn the clock back to a time when he was in control of his life.