Please Hold

Today I finally awoke under my own roof, in my own bed, after a whirlwind series of emotional and travel adventures. This morning, I ventured outside to walk the dog, I made coffee, and then the three of us–me, the dog, and an enormous slab of wedding cake–promptly returned to bed, where we have been ever since. Yes, I know it’s a Tuesday. But after the ten days I just had, I am taking a Sunday instead.

As my previous post indicated, my dad’s “routine” eye surgery resulted in a catastrophic outcome that took two ophthalmologic surgeons and an anesthesiologist totally by surprise. It was like driving to the grocery store and running over an IED–devastation, horror, and total shock. Suddenly, my mother’s primary caretaker was both physically incapacitated and emotionally devastated, though he was too stoic to show it overtly. My mother is slightly more demonstrative (sarcasm!), and she swung violently between compassion for my dad, fear at an uncertain future , and indiscriminate anger at various people–me, my sister, even my dad–for various infractions–patronizing her, being disrespectful, taking the front seat of the car. That last perpetrator was my dad! Returning home after two days in the hospital as a newly one-eyed man, he had the audacity to try to take the front passenger seat. (He is 6’3″ and she is 5’3″, so where she gets the idea that she should sit up front like the Queen of France, I do not know.) My mother was so focused on her own victimhood, and also having to pee (despite my sister begging her to go before she got in the car), that she completely forgot the nature of the task at hand: driving my dad home from the hospital.

Thanks, Alzheimer’s!

It took days for the New Reality to sink into her memory, and even now she routinely forgets that my father only has sight in one eye. He can’t bend over due to concerns about the pressure in his eye. He can’t see out of one eye, so his depth perception is fucked up, undermining his ability to perform routine tasks. His meds have been changed, and his tremor is worse, so sometimes he can barely feed himself. He can’t drive. He is in pain. And for days, his eyelid and surrounding tissues were swollen and black. Not the red and purple people mean when they say “a black eye,” but LITERALLY black. The sclera (white of the eye) is still cherry red, and he literally weeps blood. And my mother looks him right in the face, without recognition of any of this, and chastises him for not being able to help her pick specks of dog food off the carpet or go to the store to get her the right kind of cereal.

Fuck you, Alzheimer’s!

My dad’s surgery was on a Thursday nearly two weeks ago. My sister called with The News about 3 PM, and it’s been crazy ever since. I packed myself in 10 minutes, drove across town to drop the dog at my parents’ apartment, then pushed on to the hospital, where I stayed with my mother until 10 PM that night. The next day, we were back at the hospital by 9:30 AM, an epic feat considering that Alzheimer’s has completely ruined my mother’s executive function. She cannot plan and complete a task, so the simple request that she dress herself and eat some cereal drifted into efforts to clean the apartment, organize a cabinet, and repair a tear to the newspaper. It’s like having a toddler, but a toddler who weighs 130 pounds, knows they are legally an adult, and can push your buttons like nobody’s business.

We took my dad home that night, and I stayed over to attend to him. The next day, my sister and I worked in shifts, which enabled me to escape for a bit. I went to my friend’s bridal fitting, and then we visited a mall to buy makeup like Fancy Ladies. We are bad at malls, and I will write about this excursion at some other point. $260 worth of makeup later (WTF!), I headed back to the loony bin to spend another night with my folks.

I spent Monday & Tuesday grinding out a big project, Wednesday I got caught up on the anatomy of the heart and blood vessels for the class I’m taking, and Thursday I had an all-day meeting in the city. Thursday night I went back to my folks’, stayed over, then left Friday morning at the crack of dawn to fly to New England for my cousin’s funeral. Two days of celebrating my cousin’s life, crying at his grave, and catching up with extended family, then back on the plane to fly home. (More on this later.) I went straight from the airport to my friend’s open house on the eve of her wedding. Then back to my parents’ apartment, where I had stashed the dog but was also supervising my dad’s care. This brings us to Sunday.

My friend married the love of her life two days ago, and it was a wonderful day from start to finish. I had some drama with my parents in the morning but was finally able to extract myself around noon and head to my friend’s house to help with wedding prep. It was a day of firsts–I made my first bridal bouquet and my first groom’s boutonnière, and I did my first-ever bridal up-do. It all came together beautifully, though thankfully the bride’s aesthetic was “you tried hard, and it will look good from a distance.” The party went late, as all good parties do, and I finally arrived back at my parents’ apartment at 2 AM yesterday. I awoke about two hours later in extreme pain. The booze I consumed at the wedding must have anesthetized me from feeling the damage I was doing to my body by being on my feet in peep toe stilettos for 8 straight hours. My toes looked like sausages, my feet and ankles were swollen and sore, and I felt like I was 150 years old. As of today, the swelling is down in all but two toes, but those little piggies remain completely numb.

Bad at malls, also bad at high heels!

A few more hours of fitful sleep, and then I was up and out, Ubering to retrieve my car across town, running errands for my folks, assembling post-wedding flower bouquets for display at my parents’ retirement home, walking their neighbor’s dog, and then finally

finally

finally

driving myself and my pup HOME.

As an introvert, I need a lot of downtime after being around people in emotionally charged situations, whether they are sad or angry or exuberant and joyful. I have had all of these in the last ten days, and I am spent. The list of creatures I can stand to deal with is currently counted on one hand: my dog, a few dear friends, and another piece of wedding cake.

Everyone else: Please hold.

I will be with you shortly.

 

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Holiday

Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.

Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:

  • The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
  • The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
  • We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
  • We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
  • Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
  • We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.

My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.

“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.

The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”

My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”

She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.

“He’s dead, right?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“And he killed himself, right?”

“That’s right.”

The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.

If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.

(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)

When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.

If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?

The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.

My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.

Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.

And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.

And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

In Lieu of Flowers

This weekend I attended a funeral visitation for a friend’s son, who died suddenly last week. Suffice it to say, if there are Lego toys in your casket, you are gone from this life too soon.

My friend and I attended together. I was reluctant to go, because I worried that the value of our presence for our mutual but distant friends would be outweighed by the emotional disturbance it would create for us–cryers, both–in an otherwise peaceful weekend. Better to reach out to the grieving parents in a week or two, to see if they want to get together, I suggested. We can go, so we should go, my friend countered. When you’re stricken with horror and helplessness, showing up to represent the collective good wishes of people at the outer edges of a community of grief is both an honor and a duty.

She was right. We went.

The receiving line was long, which gave us time to adjust to the fact that we were going to see the body of a 10 year-old boy. I never knew him in life, except as pictures posted on Facebook, so seeing him in death did not take my breath away as it has for others whom I knew personally. But still, it was surreal and simply awful. Living children have luminous skin that seems to glow from the inside, and their cheeks and lips burst with color. There is no way to replicate those features of youth on a dead child. There is no way a dead child can ever quite look at rest. A dead child can only look dead, or perhaps like a statue. What we saw, effectively, was an artist’s rendering of a boy, composed of embalming fluid, waxes and fillers, heavy makeup to conceal the violent effects of the accident that killed him, and the boy’s own little, lifeless frame. It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.

His family was good natured and kind, patiently receiving the condolences of guest after guest after guest. The boy’s grandfather held our hands and said something about “God’s plan.” We nodded kindly in assent. But silently, I thought what I always think when someone invokes God’s plan after a tragedy: God is a bad planner. Seriously. Show me a military tactician or city engineer or marketing strategist who says, “This brings us to Step 4: Killing a Random Fifth Grader,” and I’ll show you an idiot and a psychopath. Finding meaning in a child’s death after the fact doesn’t make that death an operational necessity. Any decent, productive plan would have all of the 10 year-olds survive to become 11 year-olds. But of course, the chilling truth is that there is no plan, and no god probably either. There is just the terrible physics of car versus kid, in which a second’s difference either way would have yielded a different outcome: an uneventful excursion, maybe some broken bones, or even a different mother’s child being life-flighted to the hospital. One second.

After twenty minutes or so in line, our friends greeted us warmly, almost as though we ran into them in a restaurant, not a funeral parlor ten feet from the body of their only child. I have never seen a woman look more tired than this boy’s mother.We laughed and made small talk. Someone said something about “under better circumstances,” and I replied stupidly, “This is shitty. This is a shitty thing that happened.” She laughed, looked me in the eye, and nodded. Because it is.

A lot of people invoked the “there are no words” trope in their online condolences at the death of this boy, but I think “shitty” is pretty good for describing a senseless accident, a tiny corpse, some Lego toys buried in a casket, and childless parents comforted only by their memories.