V is for Vocabulary

Even though they were very wise, the owls had a limited vocabulary.

I often walk into the living room these days and find my father with the dictionary in his lap.

He still does word puzzles — the daily Jumble and crossword — every day, although he comments often that they’re making them harder.

He needs help with them — sometimes (often) by asking me or anyone in the room, and sometimes by trying to look words up in the dictionary.

As a kid, I can remember asking how to spell a word, and he would say, “Look it up in the dictionary.” Of course, that didn’t make total sense to me because I needed to know how to spell it to look it up. Somehow it worked though.

Dictionaries have always been important to my father.

When he left for college, he was given a dictionary that he still has today. It’s tattered and worn and not the dictionary I find on his lap.

He gave me a dictionary when I went to college. I still have it.

I gave one of my sons a dictionary when he went to college — not an electronic one, but a heavy hardcover one, where he could feel the weight of all those words.

Dictionaries were a fertilizer that fed my roots.

Having a good vocabulary is a gift from my parents, one for which I am continually thankful.

Teacher from A Boy Who Wants a Dinosaur by Hiawyn Oram and Satoshi Kitamura
Fence from Catch Me, Catch Me! A Thomas the Tank Engine Story illustrated by Owain Bell
Owls from Mother Goose Treasury, 2009 Publications International — it has a long list of illustrators and I don’t know which one did the owls

New Use for an iPod

For a couple of years, my father kept saying, “I need one of those things,” and he would mimic someone holding a device in their hand and tapping on the screen.

We tried to convince him that an iPad would work well for him — it’s bigger and does a lot of the same things — but no dice. He was sure he needed a smart phone.

Last summer one of my sons upgraded from a iPod Touch to an iPhone, so we gave his iPod to my father. We could connect it to wi-fi in the house and it would function in basically the same way as a phone. My son set up an iTunes account for him, and I had my sister send him his one and only message.

At 87, this is one new trick the old dog can’t learn.

It sits on his tray table. I charge it about once a week for him. The one time I forgot, he told me that we needed to buy new batteries for it. Modern technology is hard for an older person to understand — even the basics of recharging a device.

But every day, he picks it up and pushes the home button. I put a picture of my mother on his lock screen.

“Good morning, Elinor,” he says, and then he sets it down.

I think he finds some security in seeing her face each day.

He found a use for the iPod I wouldn’t have guessed.

In the Parking Lot

I never know what I’m going to see in the parking lot at the local grocery store.

In the village of Cooperstown, there is one — yes, only one — grocery store.

I go there often. My father’s refrigerator is small, and we go through perishables fairly quickly. I started keeping a chart of how often I go to the grocery because I felt like I was going every day. It turns out that out of 50 days, I only went 36 times.

I never know what I’m going to see there. Once, I saw Mrs. Claus pushing a shopping cart up the parking lot hill to her car.

Yesterday, I stood behind an elderly man at the check-out. He paid for his groceries and handed his change back to the cashier.

“I think I owe you this,” he said. She shook her head in protest and smiled at him.

As he headed for the door, he turned and said to her, “See you tomorrow.”

Another person who goes to the store nearly every day.

As soon as he was out of sight, she put the loose change he had just given her into the container at the checkout for the this month’s charity — I think it’s Muscular Dystrophy.

“I tell my boyfriend that I have a sugar-daddy,” she said to me. “He gives me quarters every day.”

We both laughed, and she told me how he comes in every day and goes through her line.

“Once he brought me a poem,” she said. “It was strange and I didn’t understand it.”

Poetry can be like that.

I thought about my father and the way he focuses on young women who smile and are friendly. With him, I get irritated about the whole thing. It’s a fixation that bothers me, but I know that it shouldn’t.

The man at the grocery store didn’t bother me in the least. I could see how lonely he was. And old. And slightly confused.

I paid for my groceries and headed out to the parking lot. The man was standing in the middle of it, a look of consternation on his face.

“I can’t find my car,” he said, and I could hear the panic in his voice.

“What kind of car do you have?” I asked him.

“It’s a blue Ford, but I can’t find it anywhere,” he said, one hand on his cart, the other fumbling with his keys.

“Well, let’s see,” I said, and I began to look around.

With minimal effort, I found a blue Taurus and pointed to it. “Is that your car?” I asked.

A huge smile broke out on his face. “Yes! Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

I watched him push his little cart to the car and was grateful I could help.

As I drove home, I hoped he could remember where he left his house.

I’ll have to ask the cashier about it when I see her today.

What Will You Bleed?

The patterns for our personalities are set early on.

My friend, Susan, used to talk about someone she knew who, in the delirium of a high fever, mumbled out Bible verse after Bible verse. When she had been poked, she bled the Bible.

“I want to be the kind of person who does that,” Susan said to me thirty-some years ago.

Years later, when Susan was poked, she bled praise. She suffered a stroke in her 40s and I have never heard her utter a bitter word about it. After seeing Susan last June, I asked another friend, Jennifer Trafton Peterson, to make this custom artwork for her. The words are ones I have heard Susan say many times.

The other day I was wearing a new-to-me shirt and my father noticed.

“That’s a nice shirt,” he said.

“I got it at the thrift store,” I told him.

He grinned, fist-bumped the air, and said, “Hurrah!”

My father has always liked a bargain. It’s the Scotsman in him, I think. My mother had to live with it and work against it.

She was also very frugal, but, at the same time, she wished she could do some of the things that the other doctors’ wives got to do. After he retired, he yielded to her and they went on a trip to Hawaii.

It was life-changing. He still talks about it.

“I’m so glad that I listened to Mom and we made that trip to Hawaii,” he often says.

“Everyone should go to Hawaii. When are you going?” he asks me, when he’s thinking about that trip.

But my father bleeds frugality. As dementia takes hold little by little, I see a deeper austerity emerging. He sometimes wears corduroy pants that are nearly threadbare. “There’s still some wear in these,” he says when I suggest he change.

“How much is that going to cost?” he asks, when I suggest a necessary home repair or appliance replacement, in a can-we-possibly-do-without-that sort of way.

The pattern, I think, was set early on.

My sister’s mother-in-law was a fairly passive woman. In her elderly dementia, she became more and more withdrawn into a unresisting submissiveness. When she was poked, that was what she bled — utter compliance.

My mother — I had to think about her for a while to come up with what she bled — I think she bled marmalade, both sweet and sour, involving food, and serving others. She wanted to help, but she got frustrated with the muddle in her mind.

And I can’t help thinking, What are the patterns being laid in my life? When I am poked, what will I bleed?


I sleep with one ear open.

Owen told me about Krista Tippett and her podcast, On Being. The other day I was listening to an episode called, “Silence and the Presence of Everything.”  Gordon Hempton, her guest for that episode, said,

… sight is such an affordable luxury that eyelids evolved. We can close our eyes. OK, that’s enough of that. I’m just going to close my eyes and take a break. But not once in the fossil record do we have any evidence that a species evolved earlids. That would be far too dangerous. Animals must listen to survive.

I immediately thought of my deaf friends, and how lack of hearing must be a real safety issue.

I also thought of how I sleep — listening, listening, always listening.

Listening during sleep begins with motherhood. The new mom can’t help but listen for baby to wake up. In that half-awake/mostly-asleep state (yes, I know that mathematically that doesn’t add up), she must decide whether the noises heard require attention or not.

Now I listen for my father. After he took a bad fall, I put a baby monitor in his room so I could hear him when he gets up at night.

It was helpful when he wandered in the middle of the night — something that (thankfully) has only happened twice. It has helped when he has fallen, another rare occurrence. And it has helped for little things, like his light not working.

But I listen. In my sleep.

My mind filters through what I hear.

Safe. Safe. Safe. All is well.

The other night I jumped out of bed. Mostly asleep had become fully awake. I can’t tell you what I heard, but I knew it was something out of the ordinary. I thought it was a cry of pain. I ran downstairs and found my father sitting up on the edge of his bed with the lamp beside his bed turned on.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He looked at me, confused. “What?” he asked. “What did you say?”

And he put his hand up to monkey with his hearing aid. He forgets to take them out at night, but he doesn’t forget to turn them off.

“Are you okay?” I repeated.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said.

I glanced around the room to see if anything was amiss, but it all looked okay.

“Did anything happen?” I asked.

“What? No, everything’s fine,” he said again. “You can go back to bed.”

I looked at the time. 1:38 AM.

I lay in bed listening for a long time. His deep steady breathing told me that he had gone back to sleep. That luxury didn’t come to me immediately.

I never figured out what the sound was — and I probably never will.

Some things remain a mystery.

Like earlids. I can’t even imagine what they would look like.


Four Questions

This post was originally written in April 2011 when my mother was still alive and still at home. img_1181

Question #1

I asked my mother one day,  “Mom, do you know what Alzheimer’s is?

She knew.  “It’s a condition where people can’t think sensibly,” she responded.

It was a good answer.  Alzheimer’s is not a condition where someone simply doesn’t think sensibly.  They can’t.  And yet, sometimes, they can.  Like being able to answer that question with a pretty concise response shows sensible thinking.

Question #2

Yesterday my mother handed me a sheet of address labels with her name and address printed on them.

“These are for you,” she said.

“I can’t use these, Mom,” I told her.  “They have your name and address on them.”  I tried handing them back to her, but she pushed them over to me again.

“That way you won’t forget me,” she replied.

I felt a little ache in my heart at those words.  “Mom, I won’t forget you,” I reassured.  “Will you forget me?”  I asked it, even though I already knew the answer.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I’ll never forget you.”

But moments later, she forgot that she had even given me the address labels and took them back to her pile of things.  She removed one and stuck at the bottom of a note she had written herself about dinner with a friend — a dinner that had taken place months or years ago.  She had forgotten.  But she stuck the address label on the bottom of the note.

“This will help me remember,” she said.  Oh, if only it were that easy.

Question #3

Alzheimer’s is a condition where people can’t think sensibly.  The varying pieces of information that are coming at us and constantly being filtered in our mind are no longer being filtered correctly.  It’s impossible for a person with dementia to make sense of it all.

One day we were going through some clutter and my father picked up a kitschy dog made out of golf balls.  “We could probably get rid of this,” he said.

Are you going to get rid of me?” my mother asked.  With the filters missing, that was what she heard.

“You’re too valuable,” he told her.  “We’re not going to get rid of you.”  It was the perfect response.

Question #4

So many people have shown kindness to my mother.  Total strangers, long-time friends and family members have all pitched in to keep her safe and to make life easier for my father.  I know my father appreciates it, but I often wonder if my mother is even aware.

Yesterday, she answered that unasked question.  Are you aware of all the things people do for you?

She was looking for my brother.  “He’s up at his house, Mom, right next door,” I told her.

“That’s right,” she said.  “He has been so nice.  Every night he brings dinner right down to us so I don’t have to fix anything.”

Yes, he does. And I’m so glad you recognize that.  Even if you don’t always recognize me.  I know it’s because you can’t think sensibly.