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Like this post if you’re like me

13 Aug

Every morning, my ankle hurts. Just a little, in a spot that makes it obvious I’ve got arthritis. I’ve got the same thing going on with my wrist. I get up, though, and get moving. By the time I’ve had my second cup of tea, the pain is gone.

My teeth are a mess, I have hot flashes, my kids are both in double digits and old enough to know when I’m full of shit. In other words, I’m getting old.

With such abundant evidence in my real world, I don’t need it in my virtual world. But every time I get on Facebook, I see another of those dumb ass memes of some antiquated crap I’m supposed to “like” if I remember what the hell it’s for.

I remember what they’re for. The ice cube tray made out of aluminum with the lever you pulled that broke the cubes loose, while also breaking half the cubes? I remember that. It was common before we knew that aluminum consumption contributes to Alzheimer’s. I like my ice maker ‘though I’m pretty sure we’ll discover the plastic parts it’s made of cause erectile dysfunction.

I remember flash cubes, Captain Kangaroo, Mister Ed, and cassette tapes. I know what the relationship is between the cassette tape and a pencil.

I am not going to “like” any of these things.

See, I remember them and some of them even fondly. But my brain still works  the way it’s supposed to work. I can still learn new things. I can still challenge myself. I can still be part of the world evolving around me.

My dad can’t. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say his brain is clogged with knots of protein. His cognitive function is so impaired he makes things up. He’s paranoid. He can’t remember my mother is dead, so he confuses other people with my mom and insists she’s ignoring him. I have had to tell him she’s dead three times in the last month.

So, I won’t be “liking” anything from my childhood. It’s not that I don’t smile when I remember them, but when I’m 80, I’d like to have someone post a picture of Katy Perry that I can “like.” Maybe I’ll do it when I come in from a run.

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Death Becomes Dad

19 Apr

It’s the middle of the night. My dad is up from his bed, again. He does this every night, getting out of the bed for any of a number of reasons. Sometimes he just needs to pee. Sometimes something about his bed is bothering him.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I’ll ask. “Nothing,” he says. “I just have to get away from that bad environment.” I have no idea what it is about his bed that makes it a bad environment. It adjusts to make him as comfortable as possible. He can sleep with his head elevated. He can sleep with his feet elevated. He can sleep with his head and feel elevated so much that he’s almost in a fetal position.

Tonight, though, is different. Tonight, he’s not getting away from something. Tonight, he’s getting ready to go somewhere. He walks into the bathroom and washes his face then carefully combs his hair, the things he does every morning. But it’s 2 a.m., about four hours before he usually does these things. So, I ask, “What’s going on, Dad?”

“I’m getting ready,” he says.

“What are you getting ready for, Dad?”

“A meeting. I’ve got a big meeting with an architect.”

“Where are you meeting an architect, Dad?”

“Downtown,” he says, clearly agitated. Of course, the meeting is downtown. He went downtown to his office everyday for years. I should know this, he seems to be saying as he glowers at me. In his world, I’m the delusional one.

“There’s a meeting tomorrow, Dad. But it’s with your doctor. It’s Sunday, Dad.”

“Okay,” he says in a tone that indicates what I’ve said is clearly not ok. He throws his hands up in frustration.

Fast-forward two months. Dad’s in a nursing home now. His cancer is in remission. The medical kick in the teeth, though, is that he’s dying. Somehow, the chemo, the radiation, the nights my sibs and I spent tending him weren’t enough. He has dementia, pneumonia, urinary retention, leaking heart valves. He might as well have the cancer back.

I know my dad is dying because someone told me. I couldn’t figure this out on my own. That makes me feel stupid. Dying is huge; how can I have missed this? But I am a rational human. When the palliative care professionals tell us that Dad is not likely to get better than he is right now, I believe them.  At least, I believe them enough to tell them I believe them. Then I go home and do what I always do: I google “dying.”

Of course, the Kubler Ross stuff came up, but that’s not what I needed to know. Anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. I know where the anger is going: straight to my husband who gets to deal with me railing against whatever I am railing against at the moment. It’s never that my dad is dying. People die. Getting mad about Dad dying seems ridiculous; getting mad because my son did something bone-headed and my husband let him get away with it makes perfect sense.

I’m down with the denial, too. Dad’s not dying; he’s got pneumonia and he’ll get better. He’s got dementia but at least he thinks I’m my cousin, who has a vague resemblance to me even with that New Jersey accent. His cancer is in remission. It’s a beautiful day. Nobody dies on beautiful spring days, never mind that Mom died on a beautiful summer day.

Bargaining? Does promising myself to call more often count? Does taking the kids out of school to visit Grandpa count?

Acceptance? Getting there . . . and part of getting there is getting to know what it is I’m accepting. Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I would mysteriously become paralyzingly depressed. Then, just as mysteriously, I would feel better. A lot better. Then, out of the blue, I’d be blue. A diagnosis isn’t a cure, but at least I know what I’m dealing with now. I’m not making it up when I can’t get out of bed. I’m not a stress monkey when I can’t get to sleep. The cycles make sense and the medication makes it easier.

Getting to know death—at least what constitutes dying—has me ticking off the items on the Diagnosis: Death checklist.  Eating less. Check. Sleeping more. Check. Seeing friends and family who aren’t there. Check. Pneumonia. Check. Getting ready to go somewhere important. Check.

I’ve read that many dying people believe there is something very important they must do. Not like, “Oh, I have to apologize to the neighbor for calling him a son of a bitch for years.” Not that kind of thing. Here is how Ulla Mentzel, of A Good Dying, describes it:

A man who loves to sail might ask us to get the map. The all important map. Don’t you know? It’s in the drawer over there.

A soccer player might draw a playing field with an arrow pointing outside the field. Getting ready to leave the playing field.

A farmer might tell you that she has to take the cows into a different field. The one over the hill. It is very important to take them. Soon.

I’ve said more than once that I’d rather be shot in the head than live the way my father is now. “If I can’t walk, can’t remember who you are, drool, wet my pants, poop in my pants, forget to put on my pants,” I said, “put me out of my misery.”

I realize I am a coward and I should have known it. I call myself a Buddhist but I don’t meditate regularly and I am frequently not in the moment. Still, I know that dying is part of living. I place flowers on an altar every week or so. They bloom, they fragrance the house. I leave them in the vase. Their petals droop, then fall until there is nothing on the stem but a flower head. I leave them on the altar. Finally, when they are dry, I take them out of the vase. The cleaning lady admires them when they are fresh, then advocates their removal when they die. But I know, now, that they were dying all along.

Bras, Condoms and a Drive in the Country

22 Mar

In the past week, I went for a drive, shopped for extra-large condoms and bought a training bra, all in the name of helping others. Before you picture me doing favors for unfortunate strangers though, I should note that these were not random acts of kindness. Each of the others I helped is intimately related to me.

From the time I became a mother, helping others has been a primary focus of my life. Admittedly, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I’ve even resented it. Babies can’t feed themselves, change their own diapers, move themselves from place to place. And they can’t control when they need any of those things done. They don’t care if you haven’t slept more than two hours at a time since they were born. They need what they need when they need it and, if you’re any kind of decent parent, you help them get it.

Aging parents are, indeed, like children. Right now, my dad needs help moving from place to place, dealing with toileting and even feeding himself. The difference between caring for him and caring for my babies? Dad does care about who’s caring for him. He knows it’s tough and apologizes regularly. I sometimes wish he wouldn’t, but in the middle of a night where he’s gotten up three or four times convinced he needs to get ready for a meeting with an architect, it helps.

Being cute is a baby’s way of making its care less onerous. Dad has a sense of humor and even when he’s not trying, provides ample amusement. He can’t seem to remember his surgeon’s name, so calls him everything from Dr. Ballerina to Dr. Bubbalongname. The doctor’s name is Billimoria, but Dad’s names for him make me laugh, so I call him Bubbalongname, too.

Amusing Dad is far more difficult for me than caring for him. He doesn’t read, can’t really walk far, favors watching golf over cooking shows and doesn’t want to learn how to knit. I haven’t lived in my hometown for more than thirty years; I have no idea what to do there anymore. Neither does Dad.

There is one thing Dad has always loved to do though: go for a drive. Since I was a child, Dad’s been driving. Vacations were spent driving from Illinois to Florida, a two-day trip that Dad relished. I realize now that the drive was probably the most enjoyable part for Dad and not just for the thrill of making good time.

Dad loves driving for the process, not the destination. He doesn’t care where he’s going, as long as he’s going. I am goal driven; I hate the process. At the end of a long drive, there better be something worth my while because I’ve just spent a good deal of precious time doing nothing. So, getting in the car and having Dad say, “Drive out Route 14,” then promptly fall asleep is my idea of hell. Still, I get on 14 and drive, passing numerous turnoffs that look to offer promising destinations. Dad needs help satisfying his wanderlust and I provide it.

Helping my son has become complicated and conflict-ridden. This brings us to the condoms. Sometime ago, I bought my son a box of condoms, intending that he would check them out in order to be familiar with them when the time—preferably far, far in the future—came. There were three. He took one to school, put it (wrapped) in a friend’s sandwich and enjoyed the hilarity that ensued.

So, there were two condoms in my son’s side table drawer for quite a while. And then there was a girl friend. And then there was one condom. That afternoon, I met my son in the driveway and said, “Get in the car. I need to talk to you.” “Why?” he asked. “Get in the car,” I said. “We’ll go get ice cream.” Maybe my Dad is onto something with the driving thing, but a car ride is my go to parenting tactic when I need to confront—I mean—talk to, my son.

In the catalog of things a mother doesn’t want to hear, I think “I didn’t use it because it didn’t fit” is way up there with “I didn’t know the gun was loaded” and “You can’t get addicted to heroin with just one use.” I still can’t figure out how a condom doesn’t fit, but my son was insistent and is gloating about it to his dad. I find this rather unseemly, but figure that’s between the boys. In addition to stern lectures and profound disappointment, I provided condoms that should be large enough for my son, ego included. If he doesn’t improve his grades, I suppose Porn Star could be his fallback career.

And now we come to the training bra. My daughter is perched precariously on the verge of puberty. She can be as smart-mouthed as her older brother one minute and talking baby talk the next. She’s convinced she’s beginning to bud, but her pediatrician and I disagree. Still she’s tremendously modest and I was reminded of this when her shirt obeyed the laws of gravity, revealing most of her upper body as she hung upside down from the neighbor’s monkey bar. We hustled off to Target and secured “bralettes,” which are actually more like cut-off camisoles than bras.

She was understandably and adorably eager to wear one when we got home. In her haste to remove her shirt, she got stuck with it half over her head. Helping her was so easy, I nearly cried; I untied the sash she’d forgotten about. She popped on the bralette, threw on her shirt and ran outside, shouting, “I’m wearing a sport bra!”

The day will come when I need help the way my loved ones do now. I hope it’s later, rather than sooner. When it does, I hope it doesn’t involve extra-large condoms and training bras.

Don’t Hold The Mayo

1 Mar

I never really liked sandwiches. I was a hot lunch kid in elementary school, although this may have had something to do with my mother’s great distaste for cooking of any kind. I still would rather eat something that requires a knife and fork than a variation on the Earl’s invention, with the exception of the exceptional BLT from Buzz Café in Oak Park.

So I am more than a little annoyed to find myself part of the Sandwich Generation, that lucky group of people taking care of aging—and often ill—parents, while still nurturing nested offspring. In the words of me, it sucks.

It wouldn’t be so bad, I think, if it just sucked for me, but it sucks for everyone involved.

Let’s take the aging, ill parent. The ham and cheese in his sandwich scenario, he’s slogging through chemo, radiation, insomnia, tremors, muscle rigidity, chemically-induced anorexia, nightly enteric feeding because of the anorexia, and boredom. He’s on a break from cancer treatment, a little physical vacation in preparation for massive reconstruction of his digestive system to remove the tumor from his esophagus.

The whole wheat and white bread holding his life together are my sister and brother, respectively. They do the heavy lifting, which often requires heavy lifting, of caring for Dad during the week. This consisted of driving him to doctors’ offices, hospitals and treatment centers, preparing his meals, coaxing him to eat his meals, and attempting to keep him awake during the day so he would sleep at night.

With the break from treatments, there is nothing much to break up the day, so now my sibs are looking for things to keep from shooting themselves in the head out of  boredom while providing a stimulating environment for Dad. My sister, an artist, has developed a homegrown art therapy program that consists of her encouraging his artistic talents through watercolor painting. My father is an engineer by training. My sister sets the stage, supplying Dad with brushes, paper and water. She encourages him, saying things like, “Dad, you really have a feel for the materials.” Dad, playing along because he’s that kind of guy, says something like, “My heart isn’t in this.” My sister then posts Dad’s artwork to Facebook, titling it “My heart isn’t in this.” Everyone’s happy-ish.

As boring as the days may be, the nights are full of activity. For the first two or three hours after hitting the hay, Dad sleeps an average of 10 minutes at a stretch, waking to do any combination of the following: readjust the sheets, walk to the center of the room then walk back to the bed, call out for confirmation that he is in the bed, or pee. These do not necessarily happen in a fortuitous sequence.

Once the initial settling in period is over, Dad will sleep for about 1 to 2 hours at a stretch. Naturally, so does the caregiver.

Obviously, no normal human could maintain this schedule for an extended period of time. My sister does a two-day shift, my brother another. Due to excellent financial planning on my dad’s part, he is able to afford a professional caregiver two nights each week.

And where do I fit? I am the lettuce and tomato in Dad’s weekly care. I’m sure everyone could get along without my assistance, but I’m really good to have around. I take the weekends. From sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday, Dad and I hang out together. Since I don’t paint and Dad doesn’t want to learn how to knit, we watch golf together. My dad doesn’t golf and I’d rather rub sand in my eyes, but we watch golf. My brother and sister get a break and I get to feel less guilty about them doing so much during the week.

If I’m the lettuce and tomato at Dad’s house, I’m the challah at home. And between my jobs, my kids, my pets and my husband, I’m feeling sliced pretty thin lately.

The jobs—there are three—are probably the biggest drain. See, each of them is the kind Rick Perry is so proud to have created: low pay, few hours and fewer benefits. But, hey, they don’t begin to pay the bills, so there’s that.

The kids are mostly doing ok. The son can be counted on to call Jimmy John’s or put a pizza in the oven. He can also be counted on to bring his girlfriend home from school, but that’s another blog post. The daughter is showing some signs of wear around the edges. She recently got unlimited texting thanks to her brother’s $300 worth of overage. So while I’m at Job One, I’m treated to messages every fifteen minutes. The most recent spate started with “I had a BAAAAAD day” and went through “I’m sad,” “I want to cry,” and “Why should I tell you?” until I had her dad call her to see what was wrong. “Nothing,” she replied to him.

The pets should soon be less of a drain. I think it’s only fair that with all the angst she’s added to my life, the new girlfriend appears ready to provide a home for the world’s worst cat. There is still the issue of the dog’s confounding penchant for soiling in his crate, but I can only expect so many serendipities in one lifetime, I suppose.

The husband is a wonder, which sounds sort of like something you’d say about an ugly baby, but he’s picking up what slack he feels comfortable with, trying to add skills that weren’t critical until now and, most important of all, being Mr. Good Supportive Husband. He’s even agreed that Mr. Perry can have back one of his jobs, so I’ll be saying goodbye to Stalker Boy soon.

I’m probably never going to love the life I’m living right now, but I’m reminded of one sandwich that I crave. Take two slices of white bread. Slather both with as much Hellman’s mayonnaise as they can hold without dripping on the counter. Place a slice of cold meatloaf in the middle. Enjoy. Proof of one of my life’s organizing principles: enough mayonnaise can make just about anything bearable.

Take that, Tull!

17 Jan

Probably fifty percent of my driving time is spent shuttling my children to where ever it is they need to be shuttled. Some would say I’m fortunate that I have only two children to shuttle and that they have relatively few activities to which they need shuttling. It’s not luck. We’re too broke for them to do more than one activity each. I’ve also carefully chosen their activities. I never encouraged soccer or swim team, both of which require parental shuttling to exotic locales, like Schaumburg, at ungodly hours of the day.

Still, it isn’t surprising to find me in the car with my son, taking him somewhere. Frequently, I will sing along with whatever is playing on the radio. This shouldn’t be a hardship. People have paid money to hear me sing, and yet, my son repeatedly tells me to stop, saying he wants to hear the original performance. I understand this and so I stop. Recently, the reason he shut me down cut a little too close to the bone.

I was singing along, with gusto and abandon, to a David Bowie song I love. I was into it. My son wasn’t “shushing” me. Life was good. When David and I came to the chorus, however, my son exclaimed, “Ewwwww, Mom!”

“What?!,” I said, looking in the rearview mirror for the squirrel I must have run over.

“God, Mom! You are too old to sing ‘Hot tramp, I love you so’!”

“Too old? Too old for Bowie?,” I thought? Mick Jagger is prancing his wrinkly old ass all over stages everywhere and I can’t sing David Bowie? What am I going to do in the nursing home, sing along with Perry Como? When I’d calmed down a tad, I realized my son might be on to something. Mick Jagger looks really bad prancing his wrinkly old ass these days.

It’s probably fitting that my son should be the one to point out the age-appropriateness of certain activities. When I married, people had long since given up the ever annoying “When will we see you walk down the aisle?” Soon after marrying, my husband and I began baby making. This went less smoothly than anticipated but more so than many people I’ve known.

At one of my monthly doctor visits, I looked over my records while I waited for the doctor. The file folder they were in was stamped “AMA.” Each individual page had “AMA” stamped at the top. Several little pieces of paper were stapled to the folder. Each of them was stamped “AMA.” I spent the time waiting for the doctor trying to figure out what “AMA” might mean. “American Medical Association” came to mind, but why would the AMA care about my little pregnancy? Then “Against Medical Advice” popped into my head, but I would have remembered being told not to get pregnant. So, I asked the doctor what AMA meant. “Oh, ‘advanced maternal age’,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

My AMA, and my husband’s APA, weren’t so obvious when we lived in Oak Park. Lots and lots of families in Oak Park were built through adoption, which tends to be a choice made by older parents. My son’s best friend in Oak Park was adopted. My daughter attended a daycare that was run by a woman who had adopted from China. Most of her little charges, like my daughter, were also adopted from China.

My best friend, who I met in church in Oak Park, has two daughters from China. One of them is my god-daughter. We’ll call her “Gracie.” One day, my friend was in her yard raking leaves. A boy rode his bike past the house once or twice, eyeing my friend suspiciously. Eventually, he stopped and said to her, “Does Gracie live here?” “Yes, she does,” said my friend, “I’m her mother.” “You can’t be her mother,” the boy said. “Why?” my friend asked, “because I’m white?” “No,” the boy said, “because you’re old.”

My son thinks I’m too old to call the woman in that story my best friend. “You’ve outgrown having a best friend, Mom.” I asked him what it was I was supposed to call my best friend, her being my best friend and all.

“You can call her your close friend. After you reach thirty-five, you shouldn’t use ‘best friend’.”

“What’s wrong with calling her my best friend?” I insisted. “She’s my closest friend. She makes me laugh. I make her laugh. She’s going to help me hide your dead body!”

She may help me hide my husband’s dead body, too. He thinks I’m too old for glitter nail polish. My niece, who owns the glitter nail polish and is twenty-two years old, does not believe I am too old for it. The night I put it on because it just happened to be there, I also just happened to be drinking champagne. It looked great! The next day, while I was drinking my morning tea, I decided my husband was probably right. But, I reserve the right to dig into my daughter’s polish supply on New Year’s Eve.

I know I’m too old for mini-skirts and leather pants. Never really wanted leather pants, but I wore my share of mini-skirts. I’ve watched enough episodes of “What Not To Wear” to know that I should not dress like my daughter, so the mini-skirts went to the Goodwill some time ago. I’m also aware that bikinis are out of reach for me. I never wore them when I was younger, believing the maillot to be much more chic. I’m still convinced a one-piece is the fashionable woman’s choice and I am nothing if not fashionable. Ok, I’m not so fashionable most of the time, but I’m rockin’ the one-piece at the Naperville beach!

My daughter pointed out that there are things that I am too young for, like a wheel chair. I’m also too young for gray hair. Fortunately, during this phase of monetary deprivation, my hair has been tremendously cooperative. Should too many grays begin to surface, though, we’ll be giving up meat to pay for my hair coloring. I’m too young for those AARP solicitations I keep getting, too. I’m glad that my husband isn’t, though. We could really use the discounts.

I am also, most definitely, too young to die and I’ll be damned if I’m too old to rock and roll. When you come to the nursing home to visit in 30 years, it’ll be easy to find me. Just look for the little old lady singing, “Hot tramp! I love you so.”

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