Don’t deal him out.

When I left Peter one afternoon, I stopped to chat with the wife of another resident. We compared notes, as we’ve done before, and agreed that the year just past, for both of us and our spouses, had been terrible. She’s a woman who tries to look on the bright side too, so we’ve shared laughs over the months as well.

I told her I’d just reintroduced Peter to cribbage and that it had been more successful than I expected. “He remembered enough about the game to play fairly well,” I told her. “I never could play very well, so he’s at my skill level now.” 

“Well then, what did you think about our husbands’ poker game last week?” 

“Poker? Peter doesn’t even know how to play!” I was astonished. At Christmas the family poker players drag him to Leslie and Martin’s kitchen table and coach him.

She explained that our husbands and another resident had played one afternoon. “They had beer, chips and dip, laughed and carried on as if they’d been pals for years. They seemed to know what they were doing.”

“Could they hear each other?” 

She shook her head and laughed. “Didn’t matter, they had a terrific time.” 

“That’s wonderful! I hadn’t heard about it, but you just made my day!” I drove home with a big smile on my face.

Ol’ Poker Face Pete looks like he’s ready to ‘fold.’

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 
 
 
 
Header photo: freepik

Two points for a pair.

Sir John Suckling invented cribbage in early 1600s England. The game, still popular in pubs, is played with one deck of cards, a cribbage board and colored pegs with which to keep score.

Cribbage is somewhat complicated, but even more than the game itself, the odd terms and conventions confuse beginners. This isn’t surprising considering that the country of origin gives its villages such whimsical names as Pucklechurch, Nether Wallop and Great Snoring. Cribbage terms—his Nob, box, the crib, right Jack and Muggins—confuse as well.  A Muggins, for example, is called when a player doesn’t calculate her score correctly— the difference in points is awarded to the opponent. Good thing for me we’ve never followed that rule.

Peter and I used to play a lot of cribbage. He teased relentlessly when I forgot whose turn it was to play after a “go” or whose turn to cut the cards or, for that matter, even to remember when to cut the cards. In my never ending attempt to keep him engaged now, I wondered if he would try to play again. He surprised me.

Without going further into the myriad details and quirks of the game—this isn’t meant to instruct after all—I’ll just say that Peter plays way better than I thought he would. He remembers to offer the dealer, me, a chance cut the deck and to cut for the “turn-up,” while I remember which direction to peg. He never remembers which color is his and often—on purpose I’m sure—moves my red peg ahead if he and his blue peg are behind.

At first he didn’t seem to remember that a hand with four ten-count cards, a five, and a five turned up was an “even ‘doz,” his words for 12 points. But when I used the phrase I saw the tiniest spark in his eyes that said, oh-h, yeseven ‘doz

Mickey M  kibitzes.

When I forget to add extra points for a hand that is all the same suit (four) or that also matches the turn up suit (five) Peter reminds me with a sly look. I never have been able to remember that when “his Nob” is turned up the dealer gets two points.

He’s remembered the custom to knock sharply on the table to signal either that he can’t play or doesn’t want to cut. Another niggly convention I seldom recall.

It has worked out that whenever we play one of us remembers what the other forgets. Peg two points for the pair we are!

One day I suggested we play Rummy for a change. Nearly every hand, Peter forgot he needed to lay down at least a run of three or three of a kind. It confuses him when I remind him that he can draw from the discard pile if he wants a certain card and is able to play it with something in his hand. I’d just discarded a queen when he asked, “Can I pick that Queen up?”

“Yes, but you have to play her with at least two other Queens, or the King and Jack of hearts.”

He studied his hand then, with a flourish, spread four Queens and three tens across the table.  “OUT!” he said.

I sputtered. “You fooled me again, you cheeky bugger.”

He loves to make me laugh and I love that he still tries.

Header: Peter and Nobby are featured on cards we use.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Channeling Henry VIII.

This bit of gallows humo(u)r is, well, an interlude in our own Shakespearean tragedy.

Sunday’s visit with my husband was difficult, especially since I’d gone to see him after a pleasant few hours’ brunch with my friend Karolyn. She and I had empathized and giggled over our similar lots in life. When I left I was in a good mood, but when I arrived at the facility where Peter lives and headed toward his room a nurse coming towards me shook her head. “Peter has done even more packing up this time,” she said.  And good morning to you too, I thought. I let that slide for the moment.

Peter was in the dining area, just finishing lunch. He did his usual surprise act when he saw me. “Oh, it’s you!” he said. “Where did you come from?”

“Out there.” I pointed to the entryway. “Are you finished? Have you had dessert?” There was still food on his plate, not surprising since he doesn’t like the meals.

“Oh, yes” someone said,”he had a scone with a beer in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.”

“A scone and a beer? What would your old granny say?” I asked. He shrugged and gave me his exaggerated fake wink.

It was a pleasant day so we went outside to the gazebo. After a few minutes of idle chat, I took a deep breath and prepared to have another Talk with him. A month ago he’d asked if he would ever get out of “this place.” Since he’d  asked directly I answered as plainly as I could hating, hating, that I must do it. I explained again that because of his falls, plus his wandering and getting lost, I couldn’t take care of him at home anymore. “I can’t lift you when you fall,” I said, “and I couldn’t always find you when you got lost.”

“But I don’t fall,” he said, “and I’ve never gotten lost.” I raised my left eyebrow. “Well, I don’t remember if I did.”

“I know you don’t remember, but that’s part of the problem. But you can’t help it.” I put my head on his shoulder and patted his knee. “I know you don’t want to be here and I don’t want you to be here either. But this is the best answer to a bad situation.” He was quiet. Tea, I thought. A cuppa cure-all. “Let’s go in and I’ll make us a cup of tea,”

I was shocked when I opened the door to his room. The nurse was right. He’d created even more mayhem than usual. This was the day same he’d gone so far as to hide his tv set. I bit my tongue to keep from saying what was on my lips. “I’ll make tea after I tidy up,” I said.

“I’ll help! What shall I do?” he asked. I nodded towards the bed where he’d stacked every single thing that that would fit. “I’ll put these clothes away, shall I?”

“Good idea,” I said. He hung up his shirts neatly, making sure they were buttoned and straight, while I put everything else away. Forty minutes passed before I fixed tea.

Peter frowned while he sipped, lost in thought. “It’s funny,” he said finally, waving his arms around, “I’m healthy all over the rest of me body. It’s just me head. I can’t remember anything.”

“We could chop off your head!” I said.

As quick as ever in his best Cockney accent, he said, “Off wif ‘is ‘ead!” And with no hesitation, he began to belt out,

I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She’s been married seven times before
And every one was an ‘Enery
She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery
‘Enery the Eighth, I am!

We laughed and laughed and, for the moment, nothing else mattered.

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. 

 

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

Nobby didn’t do it!

Peter went with me to get my springtime supply of potting soil. I had to ask a Lowe’s employee to help us get it off the stack and onto a flat cart. Together, we managed to heft it into the car ourselves, but at home Peter insisted he wrestle the monster bag to the backyard himself.

Then, Friday, with only a few more plants to pot, I set myself up under the maple tree with trowel, pots, scoop and…where the heck was the potting soil? I looked in the gardening cupboard, the shed, the basement. Arrgh-h, was it that bag that made the garbage bin so heavy that morning? It had been very difficult to roll to the street and Peter was concerned the weight would be too much for the lifting mechanism on the truck.

“Do you know where the potting soil is?” I asked Peter, knowing he wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

“Potting soil? What’s that?”

“Big green bag, heavy, you lugged it around back for me couple weeks ago. Come help me, I’m probably looking right at it and can’t see it.”

We went to the shed and looked under and behind things. Nope. Storage cupboard? Nope. Basement? Nope. “If it was as heavy as you say I don’t think I could’ve carried it down here,” he said.

I groaned, sure it had been put into the blue bin that had already been collected. Peter often sneaks things into the garbage. We really couldn’t blame that, even jokingly, on Nobby.

I plonked down on the terrace steps, frustrated. In order to finish, I’d have to go get another bag of the stuff. But oh, wait, something bright green beside the steps caught my eye. OH!

“Peter, I found it,” I yelled. I pointed to the bag leaning against the wall. I’d practically stepped on it when I began my search.

He laughed. He hooted. His face turned red.

“I’m sorry! It’s my fault, not yours!” I said, laughing almost as much as he was.

Leslie arrived just then. What’s going on, she wanted to know.  Peter, still laughing, pointed to the very big, very green bag. “Mum tried to blame me…said I threw that away…I can’t even lift it….”

She laughed too, as only she can. Later, she suggested the episode was a post waiting to be written. I, like Peter, always do what Leslie says.

At least Nobby didn’t get the blame.

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

 

Header: Peter weeds the herb garden.

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?


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

‘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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 2.54.27 PM

*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

 

 

 

 

 

Is someone here?

My longtime friend Bonnie and her husband Paul visited us for a couple of days last week. They were on their way from Florida to his high school reunion in Ohio.

Bonnie had emailed several times the weeks before. She wanted to make sure it was OK for them to stay with us. “Will it upset Peter?” she wondered. “Please tell us. We understand completely. We could get a hotel room.”

I reassured her that Peter remembered they were coming, though he wasn’t sure he remembered them. They were here two years ago and he’d met them at several of our class reunions, but as he says, he can’t remember what he had for breakfast.

During the days leading up to their visit Peter was extra helpful. We’d had workmen here for a week fixing our sagging carport. Sawdust and grime had drifted into the house, crusting everything. I vacuumed and dusted while Peter scrubbed the bathtub and tidied the flower beds. He mowed the yard almost willingly.

They arrived on time, well, a minute late actually. She texted an hour earlier that their GPS said they’d arrive at 12:11. They rolled in at 12:12. But what’s a minute between old friends?

It was a pleasant, sunny day, so we ate lunch on the terrace. Then Bonnie and I chattered and reminisced the whole afternoon like two women of a certain age who have known each other for all but the first two years of their lives. Paul chimed in now and then because he knew some of the people we talked about, and Peter listened, smiling. We carried on through dinner and sat outside until the lightning bugs’ glow wasn’t bright enough for us to clear the table.

Back inside, Bonnie pulled out the eight millimeter movie film she’d brought along. She had never seen it, but she’d checked beforehand to make sure I still had my dad’s old projector. The film showed her learning to walk and on through Christmases and birthdays to the age of six or seven.

Peter laughed at us laughing with tears in our eyes.

The next morning I was having my second cup of coffee when Peter came downstairs. He looked puzzled. “What’s going on upstairs?” he asked. “Is someone in the bathroom?”

I chuckled. “Well, it’s either Bonnie or Paul,” I said.

He was still confused.

“Bonnie and Paul…they got here yesterday!” No matter how enjoyable the day and evening had been, he could not remember that we had overnight guests.

He slathered his usual two slices of toast with Keillor & Sons orange marmalade, poured coffee into his big green mug, and sat down to read the paper. He reads the paper again every afternoon because he forgets the news he’s read hours earlier. And he truly can’t remember what he has for breakfast, even though he has the same thing day after day after day.

DSC01065

Gold Coreopsis brightens shady spots, while Black-Eyed Susan vine (at top) seems to glow in the dark.

 

 

Is it over easy?

Here’s a laugh without tears as per my New Year’s resolution. It’s a memory from a hot sunny day to counteract the miserable, icy January scene outside my window.

DSC09657

DSC09936Vacations on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, or other spots along the Atlantic coast, have been family favorites for years. Well, favorites for all except my husband. Peter doesn’t really enjoy the beach, but he can be lured with a good breakfast first — part of our tradition. One diner we stopped at had a long, varied menu. Peter, as usual, didn’t have his glasses, though he insisted he could read the fine print. Nonetheless he kept asking the table at large, “What do I want?” as he so often does anymore.

“Order your usual,” I said. He nodded and continued squinting at the menu.

When the young waiter returned, the rest of us ordered quickly, but Peter looked at me and asked again, “What do I want?”

Leslie and I grinned at each other and, in unison, recited, “Two eggs over easy, sausage, home fries, whole wheat toast.”

The waiter was startled. After a pause he asked, “What, is this guy mute?”

It probably wasn’t all that funny, but even Peter laughed with the rest of us. The only tears were caused by laughter.

The young man got a nice tip.

DSC09656