We Just Have One
Runner-Up--2017 Biographical Nonfiction
© Copyright 2017 by Lane Dooling
The initial band-aid was to help my stepfather and mother get organized and figure out what support was available in the community for seniors. The look on my mother’s face when I brought over a meal for dinner was one of surprise and discomfort as she responded “We don’t need you to bring over meals”. Ironically, within a week, preparing some meals became the norm – my mother never said a word about it. Although now a haze of how it got set up, it was not long before I was at their house three mornings a week. Initially, I thought it was to get them motivated to get the help they needed, etc. Before long, the lady who came and cleaned was no longer coming and it became my job, along with trips to the grocery store, drug store, pharmacy and doctor’s office. Although I was being paid hourly, as I looked down in the toilet bowl I was cleaning, I remember thinking “Do they know how uncomfortable and awful this is to clean their bathrooms? How did this even start?” After my department at a local company moved away (taking my full-time position), I was juggling a number of part-time jobs – one being a caregiving for a local agency. So, although a bit stunned how things had evolved, I put on my caregiving persona when I was at their house. When a comment was made about something I prepared (over time my stepfather became quite the food critic) or I was asked “Do you ever clean under the couches?” I refrained from reminding them I was not a cleaning expert and asking “Does it really matter?” (With all that was going on, who was looking under the couch?). Unfortunately, fear, depression and declining health can make nice people very judgmental, irrational, and self-absorbed. I would become quite familiar with Alan’s alter ego as time went on.
As I glanced at their pictures on the mantel, and a yearbook and war time memorabilia on the coffee table, I was transformed back to a different time in my folks’ lives. Born in 1936, my mother, Judy, grew up in Havertown, Pennsylvania during the Depression and World War II with one sister and a school teacher mother and an engineer father. Although many teachers had to give up their jobs once they married, my grandmother, Grace, somehow kept hers and taught in the elementary school for decades. Although there was rationing and things were tight, my mother had a more comfortable life than others. Never very athletic, she sang in the high school choir, was on Honor Roll, and was very focused on clothes and cats. She graduated from Haverford University High School in 1953 and went on to get her degree from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in 1956. I picked the burgundy embossed vinyl diploma holder, and I as I opened it up, I could smell a faint musty odor similar to old books in the library. As I ran my finger over the satin material that the diploma was adhered to, I thought about how different my mother’s life would have been if she actually had a career as a nurse. Unfortunately, she married young, and my biological father was not supportive of the inconvenient shifts for nurses first starting out. And, it did not help that my oldest sister was a “honeymoon baby”…no time to really set up a home and a career. As I stared down at the diploma with lovely script writing, I remember thinking “Mom, I am so very sorry you didn’t get to pursue a career in nursing…you would have been a good nurse.” As I closed the diploma, I leafed through her yearbook, and read the comments classmates wrote. I smiled when I read the same comments over and over about my mother being the best dressed or being a cat lover. I sighed - the comments were so full of potential. I remember her telling me that her boyfriend at the time was taking his time figuring out their future. Somehow she met my father and deemed him “worldly” (when she told me this, I had to stop myself from saying “Really? You have got to be kidding…he is a loner with a chip on his should-something to do with his father working on the railroad and not growing up with a lot of money-and drinks too much.”). As my mother told me this, I could sense her insecurity as a young adult – trying to find her place, thinking she would find it as someone’s wife. Sadly, it would not be in her long first marriage…
The roller coaster ride started taking some twists and turns as my stepfather’s health declined. He survived WWII, hardly took a Tylenol up until this point, but when his 86th birthday came and he would have to renew his license, he knew he would not be able to pass the eye test. Although cataract surgery was successful, he was suffering from Macular Degeneration which would only get worse. Although I wasn’t completely aware of it, a shadow of depression had arrived for he was the one that had been helpful all his life…and with his eye sight slowly diminishing, he would be the one who needed help. It seems so clear now but at the start of this ride, new moods, behavior and ailments came suddenly – like when a ride is coming back to the station and jerks in a stop and go motion. During my morning shifts, some days would be rather normal – Alan would be taking care of some paperwork (of course it would take much longer), my mom would be playing Solitaire on the computer (the only thing she did on the computer)…then later they would watch a talk show of sorts at noon (my mother re-reading an Agatha Christie paperback) and then it was nap time. After that, some more TV, dinner and early to bed. Interwoven were moments laced together filled with anxiety, fear, confusion and fatigue. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Alan starting experiencing sleep issues. He hated the “hang over effect” of sleeping medications but also grew more and more anxious fearing he wouldn’t be able to sleep through the night. He would wake up very cranky and mad at the world. The fatigue and early bouts of Dementia led to some peculiar behavior that ran over me like a semi-truck mainly because my stepfather, although almost 11 years older than my mom, was the positive one – the active, social, “glass is half-full” person. Up until this point, he was not scared, overly worried, sleep deprived or irrational. I remember walking in one morning and I could sense a shift in the air as I stared at a bunch of food on the counter. He was over-wrought about the amount of food that was in the fridge and freezer…I needed to take it. It was chilling that as he stood there in the kitchen, he believed he what he was asking was very normal and rational…and I remember thinking to myself “Wasn’t it just last week he was complaining to me that they are both ‘rapidly losing weight’”? This comment came as an accusation rather than a statement. I stood there dumbfounded and calmly put the food in bags and told him I would take it…of course privately praying his “real self” would surface soon.
My mother finally divorced when I was in my mid-twenties. After working, shopping and eating Lean Cuisine for a year (and pretty happy not to make dinner for an ungrateful spouse), she was asked out to brunch by Alan. I remember my mother saying it wasn’t really a date and that she thought their friend, Donna, from the choir put him up to it. Well, it was a date and later they began co-habituating and eventually married. They had a lot in common – music, attended church, watching anything on the BBC, reading, traveling, etc. And, for the most part, their differences complimented each other.
Alan was a breath of fresh air in our family. Initially, it was because he didn’t drink much, had a lot in common with my mother and was energetic. Over time, as we learned more about his life and grown kids and grandchildren and we grew to care for him in a deeper way, especially given the major deficiencies of our biological father. And, boy – he was a story teller! He could tell a story that was sad but his “glass is half-full” mind-set somehow kicked in and there was some small silver lining at the end of the story.
and his sister and parents grew up in Chicago during the Depression
which ended up being very hard on his family. His father, Harry, was
a brick layer and had about six projects going when clients or
suppliers couldn’t pay him so he couldn’t finish the
jobs. Alan told me the shame his father experienced was so great that
he never went back to their church and never got over it. He told me
that this mother, Edith, was almost magic with what she could bake
with only flour and sugar. Only once did he see her crying due to
their desperate situation – she was sitting at the wooden
kitchen table with her head in her hands softly crying. In addition,
they had to move a few times to a smaller apartment. Luckily, they
had one relative that had some money that helped out from time to
time. And, Alan was very appreciative of being part of the church
(many Swedish families like them) and being a Boy Scout. One of the
big highlights in his childhood during these bleak times was going to
the Saturday matinee. They would take the street car and the first 50
kids would also get a candy stick. For only 10 cents they saw a
cartoon, newsreel, serial and the main feature! This was better than
me seeing all those Walt Disney Movies when I was a child (we had to
buy our own candy!). Alan started doing odd jobs by the age of 12 and
even later got a job driving a meat truck. When they asked him if he
could drive, he said yes…and then taught himself! He had quite
a few vivid stories about the meat factory but I will leave the
details to one’s imagination.
graduation, he signed up to serve since by then the U.S. had entered
WWII. Not even 18, he trained at Texas A&M in the radio room
the Navy. He was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and
had some leave in Hawaii and San Francisco. His stories of the canned
food (yuck), health issues and cramped quarters followed things you
see in a war movie. His guardian angel followed him to the Pacific
and back to Chicago. He went to college on the GI Bill and started
working. He, too, was in a long marriage (four children) and
eventually divorced and moved to Northern California at age 50.
Again, his guardian angel was watching over him – he started a
successful business appraisal company from scratch which combined his
educational background and professional experience. He worked at this
company for 30 years and was well-respected in many industries. There
were a few times I helped him out when he was very busy and he used
to tell me about his former company in Chicago called Monroe
Merchandisers. The customers who came in were pretty funny –
especially those who wanted to return items. One lady wanted to
return a mirror and said she only looked in it twice! Another said
the vacuum cleaner didn’t work and when Alan opened it up –
he found a pair of pantyhose!
During the first year of my mother and Alan’s decline, there were reluctant discussions about the future. While they did tour the assisted living place that they eventually moved into years later, it was not without a bad attitude and almost an air of it being unnecessary on Alan’s part. As it turned out, his daughter and one of his sons took him to tour the facility and it happened to be his birthday. So, in a sarcastic tone, he said to the Executive Director “Can you believe it – it is my birthday and my family took me to this old folks’ home!” (Had I been there, I would have winced with embarrassment and disbelief especially since he had just turned 87!). By this time, the critical side came out more as he tried to balance fear, fatigue and just not feeling well. The isolation also took a toll on Alan who was a much more social person than my mother. Alan would have long conversations with the bank teller, checker at the grocery store and any doctor that would talk with him at the doctor’s office. There were times he took a cab to the emergency room (and dragged my mother) because “he wasn’t feeling well…hadn’t slept well”. We wondered sometimes if this was to talk with the doctors (yikes!).
Since my mother did not advocate for herself – I felt compelled to do so. After a number of months of being involved, I told Alan that my mother needed to see a Neurologist. He said he agreed but he wanted to get his medical issues stabilized first. This is one of the most vivid memories I have illustrating how self-absorbed a person who doesn’t feel well can get. I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes looking across the counter at him and somewhat calmly said “No, I am taking her next week – we have waited long enough.” He came to the appointment along with one of my sisters. As we crowed into the small room, Alan took center stage almost downplaying my mother’s issues. The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s (no real surprise). Of course it would have been helpful to get her interacting at a local senior center, etc., but her issues didn’t seem to be the focus. Alan went from one ailment to minor surgery after another. He seemed like he wanted to be in the hospital but when he had to stay overnight, he wanted to leave the minute he was allowed (go figure!). There were complaints about the nurses and I just cringed wondering what he said to them. He told me numerous times that he thought there was something really bad lurking in his body that the doctors had not yet found. (I was never sure how to respond to that!).
It sometimes takes an emergency to face the reality of a situation. One morning the plan was to pick up Alan and and my mother and bring to the doctor’s where Alan was having a minor procedure. As I arrived at their home, my mother was standing outside looking a bit bewildered.. She said Alan had passed out on the bathroom floor. I asked her if she called 911 and she said no (I wanted to scream “WHAT??? WHY NOT???). I called 911 and they arrived at the house within minutes and told us that Alan had a stroke. They took him to a different hospital since they said it was closer and it had a stoke unit. As it turns out, he didn’t really have any long-term damage but would have to have surgery on his blocked carotid artery. I will never forget when he was about back to normal no more than four hours later that he started arguing with me about the paramedics’ decision to take him to that hospital – that it wasn’t closer, he might be billed, blah blah blah…And, he wanted me to drive him to the regular hospital so he didn’t have to pay for the ambulance (of course I am thinking “Are you CRAZY?”). He was taken by ambulance and proceeded to get the clogged artery taken care of. As I was shifting gears regarding my own schedule (a daily event), I called one of my sisters about Alan having the stroke – she responded by saying ”Oh, that is too bad…I am having bridge club at my house in an hour or so – should I cancel it?” (Although I said no, I was thinking “You have to ask?...how about you take over…so I can go to my other jobs since I have to work.”).
It was during this hospital stay the next day that Alan and I actually got into an argument – yes, raised voices in the in the hospital room (Of course I was wondering “what happened to the funny, positive entertaining man I used to know? How about telling me the funny story about the ailing man who smelled his favorite pastry in the kitchen but was told that it was being made for his funeral (obviously before he actually had died!”)...but no - the less than desirable alter ego was front and center). I was trying to drive the point home that mom did not call 911 – big red flag in terms of their safety. If I hadn’t been coming over for the original procedure, would she have called me or 911? He would not listen to reason – and I am sure it was because come hell or highwater, they were going to stay in the house. It was quite clear that the thought of moving was so overwhelming and confining in his mind…and my mom was going to go along with his decision.
Within the first year, I relieved myself of the 3 morning shifts a week. I told them I want to be just a “daughter” again. Caregivers were interviewed since there were certain things Mr. Picky (a.k.a. Alan) wanted. I had to shake my head and roll my eyes at the different caregivers who came. The biggest criteria was that they could cook the traditional Midwestern dinners: meat, starch and a vegetable. The first person only prepared raw food (and was a vegetarian) - “Really – the agency thinks this is a good fit?” The second woman had to call her mother for help with recipes. And, the third woman didn’t have a lot of ideas for basic recipes. And, on one occasion, one of these caregivers started doing the laundry and organizing things (without being asked) and it took hours and hours and she stayed past the shift completely unaware (yes – the agency had to hear about this strange situation). I have to admit - I felt like Alan had willed these ill-suited people to come so that I would keep helping. We all felt he wanted someone who just knows what needs to be done (when he said this over and over, I would think “How is that possible?”). Truth be told, he really wanted one of the housekeepers like in those old family sitcoms like Alice from the Brady Bunch or Hazel. He clearly just wanted someone around when he needed help but to magically disappear when he didn’t. The meal thing never really got figured out despite a lady delivering food (always comments about the seasoning from Mr. Picky along with her personality…and of course my mother chimed in since her judgmental traits were not quite gone), prepared food picked up from a high-end grocery store, food from local restaurants and different gourmet food items sent from Alan’s family members (not Hickory Farms) – nothing passed mustard! At least a lovely lady, Wilma, came a few times a week to clean and do some errands. One weekend his daughter came and cooked the whole weekend. The following week I got the critique of the meals which sadly dripped with criticism and a major lack of appreciation. His daughter told me later she felt bullied after the weekend – one can only take so much commentary about how to cook brussels sprouts (and for the record – his daughter is an excellent cook). Sadly, we were well aware that Alan’s more recent expertise about food revolved around control - control over a rapidly shrinking life especially with his diminishing eyesight – no more driving, reading, gardening, using the computer proficiency and having enough energy to get out of the house. When he sat on the couch looking rather lost, I remember thinking “Alan, tell me the story about camping with your Uncle George, the times your cousin Don said those inappropriate things, the bad storm on the ship in the Pacific, how much you enjoyed finding snails with my kids in your garden or playing with them in the pool…but mostly I thought “Alan, I miss you – can we go back 10 years?”
Things puttered along for another year and a half with my mother’s condition declining in the shadows. After many cancelations, there was a final visit to the assisted living place they eventually moved into and it unfortunately took a very blunt “in his face” demand to Alan by one of my sisters to move into the place for the sake of our mother. He reluctantly agreed and the wheels were set in motion – many complaints all the way but I think my mom was relieved in some way. My oldest sister helped with the actual move (since she felt guilty that she had not helped out much the last three years they were in their home), and it sounded like a complaint festival and to top it off – the first meal they had, Alan and another man discussed all the things that were wrong in the place! Sadly, after complaints about how it was to the dining room (and his legs hurt) to having to go to the dining room for every meal, things steadily declined for Alan…not sure if he willed it or not. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital for dehydration and some other things but soon after, I believe something happened in the middle of the night (a stroke?) and he was never the same. It was almost like he had a lobotomy. I almost wished that he would start complaining again (“Geez – did I really say that?”). Soon after, hospice was called in complete with hospital bed. I never thought his last days would be spent in a sort of semi-conscious state – I thought he would calmly die in his sleep (like in the movies). Oddly enough, after being very willing to accompany Alan to so many trips to the emergency room and doctor’s appointments, something shifted in my mother’s brain. On some level, she knew he was in bad shape and at the same time found his groaning and calling out her name actually irritating. When I sat with her in the dining room, she would whisper “When do you think - ya know - will happen?” Of course I was surprised by the passive bluntness of this question…I looked into her face and said “You mean when will Alan die?” And she shook her head yes. Strangely, it didn’t really seem to bother her the way I would have thought. I have pondered this reaction or non-reaction and wondered if it was better she seemed so unattached – that at least she would not be so grieve-stricken. I have always assumed that her condition probably declined another level.
For the past year and a half, life has gone on for my mother as her Alzheimer’s has advanced evidenced by her losing interest in her baseball team (never thought that would happen!), no interest in hygiene, no recollection of who visited, who brought the candy, if she went to a meal, and even old memories. She never talks about Alan or any family members. For now she remembers my name and who I am but I think she is passively annoyed that I take her to dinner most nights in the dining room. The next step is more care (aides) and I will just be a companion sitting on the couch with her watching repeats of MASH and Mary Tyler Moore like we did in the ‘70s along with bringing her cookies and candy. She is not combative or a wanderer so she may be able to stay in her apartment. As I sit next to her, I want so much to talk with her about what is going on in my life or in the world…I want her so desperately to remember her life – all of us, her cats, nursing school, when her parents moved to Walnut Creek, our vacations in La Jolla (San Diego), bringing my kids to get ice cream and them always laughing that she ALWAYS got Jamoca Almond Fudge, buying the expensive comic books for my son at the bookstore, how many times she read and re-read her Agatha Christie paperbacks, and so much more. I exhale with a deep breath filled with sadness, disheartenment, frustration and gratitude – that she is safe, not in pain and seems naively content like a small child watching repeats of Andy Griffith and other old shows, eating chocolate and looking at pictures of cats. The ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride have slowed to a hum. Of course I want to say “Mom, tell me the story about eating all the nonpareil candies (chocolate disks with the little white beads on top) that were for Grandma’s bridge club and the bad stomach ache you got…or when my neighbor friend and I (age 5) took off our clothes and went “swimming” in the fountain outside the department store much to your shock and discontent”…but mostly I think “Mom, I miss you – can we go back 10 years? Mom and Alan, I thank you both – all the memories keep me company…in your company.”
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