Surgery

Each member of the surgical team looped through the room.  An introduction. Name and date of birth requested. The why-are-you-here question.

My mother didn’t know the answers when I had sat in the same spot with her some years before. I helped.

My father knew — for the most part.

“Did you have anything to eat this morning?” the anesthesiologist asked.

“Not too much,” he answered.

“He had nothing,” I said.

“Has the surgeon marked on you yet?” a nurse asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered.

“Yes, he did,” I replied.

“Can you tell me about your other surgeries?” the surgeon asked.

“It’s been years and years,” my father answered.

“Last August he had a VP shunt put in, and a few years before that he got a pacemaker,” I answered.

He knew his name. He knew his birthday. He knew what the surgery was.

All in all, I’d say he did pretty well.

A few weeks ago, he had had an episode of chest pain that landed him in the Emergency Room. They ask a different set of questions.

“Are you still a full-code?” the nurse had asked, but then she looked to me for the answer. It’s an uncomfortable question.

“Well, I’m not ready to cash in yet!” my father answered.

“Would you like to be placed on life support?” she asked.

“I’m not going to live forever, you know,” he replied.

His mixed responses were confusing, but he and my mother had both very clearly written out their wishes many years ago. I told his doctor and she asked that I bring in a copy to put in his chart. Just so it’s there.

Last night, I went for a walk. The fields were fifty shades of green. The timothy alone was a full palette of color — spring green, grass green, grey green, a whispery pale green at the very edges of the flower-head.

The fields whispered with the breeze, carrying along its little breaths like a melody passed around an orchestra. The meadow swayed and danced, and the only audience for this performance was the deer, the red-wing blackbirds, and me.

When the Bible talks about grass, it’s usually in reference to transience.

“The grass withers, the flower fades…” (Isaiah 40:8)

The comparison isn’t that man will last forever. We are just as transient.

A surgery day is a time to remember that.

It’s a time to pause. Even if we’re not ready to cash in, it’s okay to remember that we aren’t going to live forever either.

*****

The surgery went well. He’s already home. He’s not ready to cash in yet — and neither am I.

My Mother’s Closet

My mother’s  closet has only been hers.

When my parents bought this old farmhouse 50 years ago, it had one closet — a tiny one, at that.

While we kids put up a rope swing, my father put in closets.

Putting up the rope swing

Swinging

putting in closets

Bi-fold doors must have been in then, because that’s what he installed — in his closet, my mother’s closet, my sister’s closet, and my oldest brother’s closet. The rest of us didn’t get closets; we had cardboard wardrobes.

I stood outside my mother’s closet the other day, hesitating to open the door. It has to be done — the cleaning of it, I mean. She’s been gone over a year and a half. My son is staying in that room. And he sure could use a closet.

But I stood there, not wanting to look again at what’s inside.

The brown wool plaid skirt. The green skirt with Greek meander border. The dress she wore at my wedding.

The ruffled blouses that she wore to dress up.

The sweaters.

The housecoats, even.

They’re housecoats, for crying out loud.

But I can picture her standing in the kitchen wearing them, making our lunches for school.

A woman I know lost her house in a fire recently.

Is that how you want to deal with your mother’s things? a voice whispered in my heart. I knew it wasn’t God, because He didn’t burn my friend’s house down. He doesn’t threaten to burn houses down. I saw, however, in my mind’s eye, my fingers being forcibly pried off the things I’m holding onto.

Is that how I want to deal with my mother’s things? No. Absolutely not.

But they must be dealt with.

Garbage? No. That’s wasteful. My mother was never wasteful.

A yard sale? No — I don’t think I could bear watching people paw through her things.

Donate to the church’s rummage sale? No — same reason.

I think I need to box it all up and take it to a donation point in another city. She would want some good to come of it all.

Then, I’ll have to look at an empty closet.

And mourn a little, allowing the closet’s history to move just a wee bit distant into the past.

Before my son moves his stuff in and the closet has its second occupant.

 

The Gift of Giving

About a month ago, I received a curious piece of mail.

When I opened the envelope, I found a folded-up piece of yellow construction paper. In red marker, the sender, Juliette, a little girl from our church in Greene, had drawn a heart, an elephant, a waterfall, and some flowers covered in dirt. (Her grandmother wrote explanations for me.) 

It also included a dandelion. I actually love dandelions. I loved when my own children were of the age of bringing me dandelion bouquets.

That letter made my day. It was so fun to receive something so unexpected. I knew I needed to respond, but, in the craziness of getting ready for France, I didn’t do it until the other day.

I made a card for Juliette. 

The rabbits were just a little too big to fit neatly on my card, so one rabbit’s ear and tail fold around onto the back. I guess you could say its back side is on the back side.

I asked her grandmother for Juliette’s address. She texted the address back and added, “She is fascinated right now with giving everyone the pictures she makes.”

 

Juliette is learning at a young age that giving is its own gift.

***

Last night at the dinner table, as my father repeatedly repeated himself, I found myself wondering at the wisdom of bringing my children here to live with him.

It can be frustrating and even, sometimes, a little irritating to listen to the same comments about the blueness of the skies and the greenness of the plants.

I’ve heard Mary patiently explain how to operate the remote control to the television and sometimes resort the explanation of “magic” when asked how she found the right channel. The other night I heard Karl trying to explain the remote control. Again.

My youngest children have to live in a house with rooms still full of items from previous occupants. My parents’ house became a repository for so many things from other family members that it’s hard to find space for its current residents.

I wonder repeatedly, is this good for them? Is it good for our family to be a little fractured for the sake of the eldest member? Is it good to stretch between two homes, and in so doing, to almost have no home? Is it good to see their grandfather needy and weak and forgetful?

But I remember my mother caring for her mother and mother-in-law. With patience, sacrifice, and great love, she did for them what they could no longer do for themselves.

I suppose I’m following in her footsteps.

It’s a different kind of giving from sending a sweet greeting in the mail.

Sometimes this kind of giving seems like a terrible gift, but I need to remember that it is a gift nonetheless.

I need to lean in. Embrace each moment. These gifts are good.

Ominous Beginning — Part 2

Traveling is a weary business. Especially when traipsing across time zones.

When you start in a rural area and end in a rural area, travel time is extended by the road time at either end.

We left Cooperstown around 12:30 PM and arrived in Bayeux around 1 PM the following day — which would have been 7 AM New York time.

A little walk, a little food, a little wine — and I was refreshed. When it got to be dinner time, my father didn’t join us because he wasn’t hungry. My sister stayed with him while the rest of us got some crepes.

The next day was to be our first day touring the Normandy beaches. I had gotten up early and been served a lovely tray of coffee in the lounge area downstairs. My sister joined me and we walked to a patisserie to buy some pastries. So far, everything was absolutely wonderful.

But…

an hour or two later…

I was in our room when my brother pounded on the door.

“I need you,” he said, and we hastily followed him back to the room he shared with my father.

My father was laying on the bathroom floor, his face roughly the same color as his t-shirt — white — and damp.

“I saw him hanging onto the counter,” Peter said, “like he was going to pass out, so I helped him lie down and got you.”

Bud quickly sat on the only available seat — the stool — and elevated my father’s legs.

We got a pillow for under his head.

And we discussed what to do.

Last year, right about this time, my sister stayed with my father, heard a crash, and found him on the bathroom floor.

My brother had gotten more than one call from Lifeline after my father had fallen.

I had seen him near-collapse and called the nursing service we use for home care.

Each of us had seen our father like this before —

And therein lies the blessing.

While it was scary, it was not unfamiliar.

“I think it’s a syncopal episode,” one of us said.

I remembered the nurse telling me that one of the causes can be dehydration. Had he drank enough while we traveled? Probably not.

I ran downstairs and got a glass of orange juice. By the time I got back upstairs, his color was much improved. My father felt like he could sit up, so my husband and brother lifted him to a chair.

Orange juice and pain au chocolat work magic

The episode passed. We had a reprieve. The rest of the trip went without incident.

He had a cardiology appointment when we got home. They interrogated his pacemaker and could tell that it hadn’t been a cardiac event. We had been correct in our assessment.

For one moment, I had visions of getting to know the French health care system — but because of my brother’s quick thinking to prevent a fall and our collective experiences with his syncopal episodes, we weathered that storm.

Sometimes, in the midst of a terrible situation, it’s hard to see the good.

And maybe the good is never really good, but becomes a relative goodness — one where you’re able to say a little thank you for a terrible thing that previously happened.

Wandering Words on Travel and Life

This was a picture I thought about posting yesterday. Same trip — to Greece and Macedonia — but the look is one I recognize from later years.

As Alzheimer’s slowly took her from us, her face became less and less expressive.

We could still coax a smile out of her, but it wasn’t the same.

When she first held her great-grandson, she stared and stared. I didn’t think she would ever smile.

He was sleeping when we placed him in her arms. His mother and father hovered, hands ready to catch the precious cargo should she forget what she was doing.

We watched.

We told her over and over that this was her great-grandson.

Other women residents in the nursing home moved closer, wanting to see, wanting to touch this new life. Perhaps some youth would rub off on them.

But we tried to keep this as her moment. It was, after all, her lineage. Her family.

Finally, the baby squirmed — parent hands moved in closer to avert potential disaster — and turned his head toward her breast.

She smiled a real smile that reached her eyes.

So I look at that travel picture of my mother sitting on a bench, alone, slightly lost — and I know that trip was a milestone, but not in the good sense.

It’s almost like we were at the base of Heartbreak Hill — and we were about to tackle the toughest part of the course. But we didn’t fully comprehend it at the time.

And that’s the trouble. I DO comprehend it now. I’m not ready to do it again.

But my father forgot someone yesterday, a person that he had known well for many years but yesterday he had no recollection of her at all.

So, if I feel a little panicked about this trip to Normandy, it’s because I’m thinking of this other journey that I’m on.

What’s that cheesy saying?  “Each day is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” Sometimes cheesy is good and true.

I need to remember that.

Travel

I suppose this doesn’t look like a terribly dangerous picture, but I still get that squeezy feeling in my stomach when I look at it.

This was from the last overseas trip my parents took together. Nine years ago they went on a tour of Greece and Macedonia — I think it was called something like, “Footsteps of Paul.”

My father had been so excited about this trip. He had ordered all the books and done the recommended reading.

My mother, however, was declining in her mental capacity.  At first, my father was in denial about that. Little things are easy to excuse. As the trip grew closer, it became more and more undeniable. I wrote a post several years ago about that trip and called it “Scary Travels With Alzheimer’s.”

But there she is, in the picture above, smiling, because she has no clue how close she will come to being lost in Greece. (She wandered out of the hotel room without my father but was seen by other members of the tour and kept safe.)

After that trip, my father said their traveling days were over.

Now we’re preparing to take him on a trip. For years he has talked about wanting to go to Normandy to see the beaches of the D-Day invasion. Every time one of his friends came back from Normandy, he would smile and shake his head sadly, saying, “I’d really like to get there someday.”

When my mother was still alive, he wouldn’t leave her. Then his own health issues overlapped with her final days. It’s been a tough go.

So we (my siblings and I) decided it was now or never. We’re going to Normandy. We’ve arranged for a private guide so everything can be done at my father’s pace. We’ll see the beaches and hear the stories, then we’ll spend a few days in Paris.

Yes, danger — on so many levels and so many fronts.

I’m praying it all goes well.

The Cookie Rule

One of my brothers attended Cornell  — ever heard of it? While he was there, my uncle visited to adjudicate at the law school’s moot court competition. My brother snuck up to the bench where my uncle would be hearing the arguments and left a little note at his spot on the dais —

The following case may be relevant to today’s proceedings —

P— vs State of New Jersey (1937) in which the “cookie rule” was established.

The Cookie Rule clearly states that cookies must be consumed in the following proportion:  two plain cookies for every filled one.

I remember my uncle telling my father the story and roaring with laughter. My grandfather, my father, my uncle — they all love to laugh.

And I love to hear it.

But the cookie rule was new to me at that point. My mother never instituted it, although my father had grown up with it. His mother had come up with a way to control cookie consumption — two plain cookies for every filled.

All this flashed through my mind yesterday when I brought my father his “sweet” to eat after lunch.

My father definitely has a sweet tooth, and every meal (except breakfast) is followed by something sweet. After lunch, it’s usually a cookie, and after dinner, it’s usually ice cream.

I had picked up a package of Oreos at the store because they were on sale. I know, I know — Oreos are basically death between two wafers — but he likes them so I buy them occasionally.

Okay, I confess — I like them, too.

So, I brought this brand-new package of Oreos to him and said, “Dad, would you like a cookie?”

His eyes lit up. “I think I would,” he said.

I peeled back the flap to reveal the treasure, and he reached in to take one.

“Could I have two?” he asked — and suddenly, I saw in front of me a little boy asking permission to break a rule. His eyes sparkled as he looked up at me hopefully.

“Yes, you can have two,” I said.

He smiled and pulled two cookies out of the package.

Douglas MacArthur said, “You are remembered for the rules you break.”

I’m sure my father will be remembered for much more than this, but I’ll treasure that look he had as he took two filled cookies.