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.

10 Things To Do When Visiting an Elderly Person

I ran into someone who has been promising to visit my father. When I saw her at the Post Office and she asked, “What can we do to help you and your father?” my answer was easy. Visit him.

I was telling Mary about it later. “Visiting is so easy to put off.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I don’t think I’d be very comfortable with it either.”

Visiting isn’t hard, though.

I wrote a list of ten things to do when visiting an elderly person — to make visits easier, if you don’t know how.

1. Listen — Listening is a slow-paced skill that has gotten lost in our rush-rush society. My father struggles to find words. Finding the patience to listen is so good for me.

2. Ask questions — I once heard someone suggest asking elderly people to  talk about a time they got in trouble as a child. It brings out some funny stories. My father likes to talk about important days in history and the early days with my mother. Sometimes a question or two is all it takes to get a conversation rolling.

3. Look at photo albums — My mother always had a few small photo albums in her room at the nursing home.  My father has some by his chair. She worked at identifying the people. He recalls past adventures.

4. Read — Sometimes I read to my mother. I discovered that picture books worked especially well. Reading to someone with dementia, though, is not unlike reading to a toddler. Her attention span was sometimes short and we would skip pages to reach the end.

5. Listen to him (or her) read — My father reads to me. When he chooses books to read, he often chooses thick books with small print. “Why don’t you choose an easier book?” I asked him once.

“I like to challenge myself ,” he replied.

So he ends up reading passages out loud. I think it helps him process. He is not unlike a 3rd or 4th grader, following the words with his finger, moving his lips all the while, often whispering aloud — and then going back and reading it to me.

Right now he’s reading The Bounty Trilogy — a fat book containing all three of the Bounty books by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

“Captain Bligh was a bad guy,” he told me about six times yesterday.

“Yes, that’s why the crew mutinied,” I replied. “Spoiler alert.”

We would repeat the conversation about an hour later.

Someone visiting him could easily ask about what he’s reading, and I’m sure my father would be happy to tell him and read to him.

6. Write a letter — My father has wanted to write a few letters but, in addition to the struggle for words, the fine motor skills required for writing are lacking. Recently I’ve taken dictation from him to try to help.

Helen and Fred

Helen and Fred

7. Do puzzles or play games — My father still does the daily jumble and crossword, but more and more he needs a little help. He transposes letters or gets the down and across mixed up. I usually help him with a few answers and then let him keep working on it.

Helen used to play rummy with an elderly man. He cheated constantly and accused her of cheating — and they both laughed about it. It was a great way for them to visit.

8. Walk — One person that came to visit my father asked about the house. He gave her a walking tour,  talking about the changes we had made to the house. It was a slow process because he stopped to talk about different pieces of artwork etc. He likes to walk outside, too, when the weather is nicer. But he needs someone with him.


One of the twice daily visits which were always at mealtime.

9. Sit — For several years, I watched my father visit my mother every day twice a day. She couldn’t carry on a conversation toward the end so he just sat with her.

Now I sit with him most evenings while he watches television. Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, a baseball game, whatever.

10. Share a meal — My father could win prizes for being the world’s slowest eater, but we sit together every night to eat. I’m so thankful that my daughters patiently wait until he’s done. No devices. Just conversation. It is good.

The sad thing about a list like this is that the people involved in elder care will see it and nod in agreement, but most other people (myself included in years past) will just gloss over it.

But then, again, Karl applied for a job at a retirement home. Maybe this will be helpful…

The Grandmother’s New Pants

A friend who is helping care for an elderly relative told me about one evening when she went to visit her aunt and she found her wearing no pants.  It reminded me of a poem I had written when my mother did something similar.

Here’s my poem:


My mother had no pants on
When she came down the stairs.
The funny thing about it was
It seemed she didn’t care.

The Emperor’s New Clothes became
The Grandmother’s New Pants –
Invisible clothes or missing –
I took another glance.

My children both politely
Turned their backs to her.
Modesty would dictate
Their behavior be demure.

“Mom, you need some pants on!”
“I know,” was all she said.
She settled in the kitchen,
Looking to be fed.

“Go put some pants on now,”
I commanded best I could.
“I will,” she said, but sat there,
So I didn’t think she would.

My father finally got her
To get up and find some pants.
I thought (but didn’t do)
A little happy dance.

Sometimes I let my toddlers
Run around with legs quite bare.
A child in only diapers
Would never get a stare.

But a grannie wearing panties,
Well, that’s a different sight.
Embarrassing for all involved —
It simply isn’t right.

So, help me, Lord, to understand
What is it I should do
When my mother comes down pantless
And doesn’t seem to have a clue.

It took some work for me to find the poem for my friend. I’ve started and stopped a number of blogs under various names.

Once I went through and started systematically deleting everything I had ever written — a self-inflicted devastation.

A lot of my writing is lost forever.


Honestly, who cares? They’re just words.

I console myself with that fact that far more important words — words written by Jesus Himself in the dirt (John 8)  — are forever gone.

Yesterday, on a forum, someone asked this question: “…what are the favorite blog posts you have written? Perhaps not the ones that have generated the most traffic, though it could be that, but the ones that reveal you.”

Believe it or not, I thought of this little poem. Actually, I thought of a few little poems I’ve written. I still can’t find one of them.

But when words and life are hard, poetry — dumb little rhyming poems — give a structure and a lightness to my thoughts.

Does that happen to anyone else?