Monthly Archives: February 2012

Under Construction

While Dad has been in Southwind, and now that he’s in the hospital, I live in a construction zone.  Lots of stuff has been thrown out, and more needs to be, yet the house is still piled with boxes and loose items — moving around in it is rather like navigating a maze.  In some cases, as with so many other things, you can’t get to point B from point A. Sometimes you have to go outside to get inside, at least in another area of the house.

Yesterday, I returned to the house, exhausted and ready to sleep.  That simply wasn’t possible — there were plumbers working under and around the house.  Tim the contractor and his father, who works with him, were working on flooring.  And wiring.  An air compressor filled the air with near-eardrum-shattering noise, accompanied by the nail gun it was powering.  Loudly powering.  Nail guns aren’t exactly quiet either.

At that point, I’d been up for about 30 hours or more.  Zombie time.  I’m amazed at how one manages to function with such sleep deprivation and under such stress.  So I sat at the computer; I tried to check on a few things.  I was too brain-fried to write coherently.  I could read only for short bursts of time.

In between those attempts to keep going, I talked to Tim as he discovered that wiring (probably the age of the house: 66) was crumbling in his hands as he attempted to wire a new motion light into the old wiring.  I could hear the frustration in his voice; I wasn’t surprised at the state of the wiring, though.

One of the realities of growing up in the household of an electrician: he works on everyone else’s stuff, but not really on his own.  I mean, for the first two years we lived in the house after we moved it and built on to it, a naked light bulb hung from the ceiling of the new half-bath.  That’s not uncommon with some craftsman, as others have told me similar experiences.

And for years now, as long as things worked, Dad just didn’t care about improving or even repairing things.  That’s typical, I think, with many people as they age.  Things fall apart.  But as long as they can still manage around those broken or damaged things, they do. In our house, as things fell apart or cracked, they were “fixed” with duct tape.  The most recent example came when I pulled out the duct tape to take care of what had started with the linoleum between the kitchen and dining room: it was coming apart at the seams.  Dad was tripping over the two curling pieces that should have been neatly glued into place.  The duct tape would at least secure the pieces together and keep them flat.  I too had succumbed to the duct-tape theory of construction.

Now, though, the new vinyl flooring will actually be glued properly onto the 1/2-inch plywood that covers the old linoleum.  Proper thresholds will cover and protect the joins from one room to another.

Slowly, slowly, the house is finally being renovated and renewed, for the first time since the fall of 1966.  My recent victories: convincing Dad that we really do need to spend the money on new carpeting in the kitchen.  And we do need to rewire the house.  Today my sister and I decided that we’d go one step further and put new floor covering in our bedrooms as well.  In my case, I want the new vinyl flooring float-laid rather than glued (Tim told me this is an option).  Kay wants the carpeting continued from the old living room/Dad’s new bedroom.  Those three rooms have beautiful wood floors that one day we hope to have refinished and polyurethaned.  They will be beautiful.  Mother covered them up because for years she had to polish them with wax polish and a then a buffer.  I remember how difficult and tedious that task was — because if she had to suffer, I did too, as young as I was.  I was her helper, albeit a non-voluntary one.

The bones of the house are solid, and it’s the covering of the bones that we’re improving now.  It’s fun, I’ll admit.  I get to pick out new flooring coverings, consult with Dad and Kay.  I am picking out carpet samples this afternoon and buying bathroom paint.  I’ve decided that as long as my bedroom will be empty at some point for the new flooring, I might as well paint the walls.  I’ve already got the paint, in fact, a lovely aqua.

If it seems selfish to make my bedroom nicer and to turn Dad’s old room into a sitting room/office/guest room, it’s because my new post-retirement life is being lived not in the house I own in Lake Charles, but in the one I spent my teenage years in.  My Lake Charles home waits, mid-renovation, for its own time.  I managed to get that house re-wired, finally, in January.  It still had the original wiring in place and in use in its attic, and my house was built in the 1920s.  Knob and tube wiring isn’t really up to code these days!  Right after Hurricane Ike, I had major projects done — replaced the galvanized pipes with the modern PEX system.  All the old/original windows (and there were lots of them, most of them long) were replaced with energy-efficient ones.  The shiplap wood siding came off, actual insulation went up, and was covered by fiber-cement Hardie siding.

I still need to paint the new siding (which fortunately came primed).  I still need to sheetrock the water-damaged walls of the living room, and replace some damaged sheetrock on the ceiling of my bedroom there.  The bathroom ceiling needs to be replaced with bead-board paneling and a new ceiling light.  The kitchen remains half-painted.  The kitchen needs new flooring. Those projects in Lake Charles will get done, slowly, though after the Egan work is completed.

In finding Tim, I think I’ve found the contractor to help me complete those projects in Lake Charles, too, since it’s only a 45-minute drive away.  He says he would be willing.

In the meantime, I get to indulge the inner decorator, the one who watches far too much HGTV.  It’s fun, and I am, after all, spending Dad’s money (though frugally and wisely, I hope).

When he comes home from Southwind, it will be to a renewed, lovely (and safe) home that isn’t so totally different that he won’t recognize it.  His trophy fish and the two deer heads will still decorate what was the living room and will be his bedroom.  We need the Bambis, after all, to remind us of who we are and have been (my niece hates it when we call those heads “Bambi”).  My brother and Dad had years of sharing a deer lease in West Texas, time they spent with cousins and each other.  The two deer heads may appall some people, but not us.  And by the way, I am a liberal who thinks hunting is necessary — we didn’t kill for the sake of killing.  We eat venison.  And fish.  If Dad and Phil didn’t get any deer, in some ways that was okay, because they’d spent the time together.  Phil sometimes just took his camera and photographed the area.  The two deer heads even got decorated at Christmas, along with our Christmas tree.  So those deer heads, and the fish, and the small antler collection in the room that was Phil’s, will remain.  The many photographs of us kids as we grew up and of our family will still decorate walls and most flat surfaces.

Pluses for me:  the satisfaction of overseeing the changes, of aiding the rebirth of this home. The fun of decorating.  And the fun of living in the construction zone of a house that looks as though it’s the house of a hoarder.  True, I get to indulge in making some room for myself to live in with an office space and some crafting space (in Phil’s old room, there is a huge old office desk he used to work on — perfect for my jewelry-making and for other crafts).  Kay will have nice new carpeting in her bedroom and will get to enjoy real showers again, in either of two very nice showers and totally up-to-date bathrooms.

Most importantly, Kay and I get the satisfaction of having made the home safe and comfortable for Dad.

Only some superficial changes will be evident — not the bones of the house, not the home that still retains the memories we cherish. And the memories we’re creating now, in lives shared once more in the house that we once lived in together when all five of us were here.

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Adventures in ER Land: Take Two

Day Two:  No breakfast after all.  No room at the Crowley hospital, either.

Dad stayed in the ER until nearly 5 a.m.  In that time, most of the others around us were released to leave or were admitted.  Others came and went, too.  Next to us: a mother and her two young daughters, one still a toddler; they were all sick, apparently.  The baby cried on and off.  The older daughter whined about a shot hurting.  One of the nurses instructed the mother on how to properly care for diaper rash so that it wouldn’t get infected; the baby had a shot of antibiotics, and then apparently decided to drop a full load just as the nurse was checking her.  I could smell the result even in our little cubicle.  I could also hear the nurse make gagging sounds.

The ER doctor tried to tell us that maybe Dad had an infection.  Clearly, he hadn’t read anything on the chart.  I filled him in.  He really didn’t listen to me much. Instead, the ER doctor decided that Dad was having a heart attack — elevated cardiac enzymes.  Absolutely no chest pain, or indeed any other discomfort at all.  After a long long night in the Crowley hospital ER, we were transported to Lafayette, to the ER at Lafayette General Hospital.

Arriving at 5:30 a.m. or so, we were immediately put into yet another small cubicle.  The ER doctor here had more blood drawn and yet more cardiac enzyme tests — and decided that no, in fact, Dad was not having a heart attack.  This doctor was much more concerned about the abscessed area of the dialysis graft and about sepsis.  He decided to admit Dad and call in a nephrologist.

At 7:30 a.m., a nurse came around for perhaps the fourth time and asked whether transportation had come for us yet.  I had to refrain from saying “DUH, I guess not.”  Instead, I simply said “no, not yet.”

The electronic monitor (no longer connected to anything) alarmed every 2 minutes, alerting someone — anyone — to check the electronic leads that were no longer connected.  Maybe no one else heard the alarm, but somehow I doubt that.  I simply got up and punched the “silent” button more times than I can remember.  By the end, I was muttering four-letter obscenities every time I hoisted my weary body out of the chair and punched the damned button one more time.  I contemplated hitting the machine. I considered unplugging it to see whether anyone would even notice.  I did neither.  I just resigned myself to a Twilight-Zone existence that consisted of sitting down, trying to nap, being awakened by the alarm, hitting the “silent” button, sitting down, trying to nap. . . .

It is now 8:15 a.m., and only 10 minutes ago were we finally transferred to a room.  Actually, we are in a room other than the one we were initially assigned to – – there was no bed in the first room.  So here we are, and I have just given Dad’s medical history for yet another time.  Asked if I had Dad’s medicine, I just looked at the nurse and told her no, but that there should be a medical history since one had come with him. She asked if he had a living will and a DNR and a power of attorney; I answered yes to all and told her that there were copies made of those documents while we were down in ER.

Now here we are 30 miles away from Dad’s primary physicians and waiting once more.

Dad is sleeping in a bed.  I am in a chair.  Not one that pulls out, either — or at least not one that pulls out any more (if it ever did).

There’s a contractor at the house (I think our neighbor let him in again today).  At some point he’s expecting a check for materials, so at some point I’ve got to get a check to him.  Of course, since I came in the ambulance with Dad, I have no vehicle.  The truck is still in the parking lot at the hospital in Crowley.

Most of the people we’ve dealt with have been very nice, though at times I felt no one was paying attention.

Small towns are wonderful.  I can trust that neighbors (who have a key to the house) will open the house for the contractor.  I can trust that the contractor will just work on what we’d agreed on, and that the plumber he has today will leave us with no galvanized pipes from 1946 and lots of lovely new PVC connections.  I trust that the sheetrock will be taped and mudded and floated.  I trust that showers will be completed, that lighting will be installed, that flooring will go down on new plywood.

And in the ER here, it turned out that the ER doctor is from Lake Charles, and I recognized his last name.  The nurse, it turns out, actually lives in Egan, not far from us.

Thirty miles really isn’t that far after all, in some ways.  In others, it’s lightyears away.


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Adventures in ER Land

Just when everything seemed to be fine….

Today was a dialysis day, so I knew I had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up a few more things for the contractor for tomorrow before I headed to Southwind to meet Dad for supper. I shopped for shower faucets, a medicine cabinet, and new light fixtures. Drove a mile or so to Southwind, parked the truck, walked into Dad’s room, and expected to see him tired and perhaps sleeping.

Instead, he was lying in bed, eyes open and staring at the ceiling, and mouth open. I took a deep breath and sat down on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. “Dad? Dad?” No response. I reached up and touched his face, called his name– still nothing. I got up, bent over him and cupped his face in both my hands, turning his face toward me. “Dad? Do you know me? Do you know who I am?” Once again, no response.

After five minutes or so, he responded a bit, though it seemed as if he were trying to talk and couldn’t. Slowly–and I have no idea how long this took– he spoke a bit in response, saying he knew me. The phone rang, and I answered. Our friend Billie wanted to talk to him, and after I filled her in and held the phone to his ear. He answered her questions slowly.

When she hung up, I put the phone down and told Dad I would be right back. At the nurses’ station, I quickly told the nurse what was up and asked her whether anyone had noticed or remarked on Dad’s condition. Yes, she said– they’d noticed his confusion upon his return from dialysis. Oh, and had the dialysis clinic told me that he had an abscess? They had started him on Vancomycin there, sent himback to Southwind with a prescription for another antibiotic, and made an appointment with Dad’s surgeon for the abcessed graft–for Thursday morning.

The nurse came back to Dad’s room, checked his oxygen saturation level, took his blood pressure, and took his temperature. Sat level: up to 94 from the previous check. BP: fine. Temperature: 101.5!

NOT fine. From previous experience,we have come to know that by the time Dad registers a fever, the infection has really been in the graft for quite a while.  After calling his doctor and talking to her partner, who was on call tonight, the staff watched Dad for an hour. Nothing changed, and as the doctor had directed, they sent Dad to ER to be admitted.

And thus began tonight’s adventures in ER-land.

First of all, it was packed. A full house. I could hear two (two and a half?) languages: Spanish, English, and Cajun English. Two hours later, I was still waiting. Yet more people had turned up.

I sat next to a man who had brought his mother or mother-in-law in. He was from somewhere near Kaplan, and his accent was markedly Cajun, but easy for me to understand. He told me a lot about her troubles, indicating that she had had some previous strokes. He sat next to a small white-haired elderly woman in a wheelchair. She never said anything as he talked.

A young Hispanic couple checked in as I was finally called up to sign some paperwork. I could hear the admitting clerk ask for their ID, their Social Security cards (they didn’t have any). But their child had one–though the mother didn’t know the number. The admitting clerk explained about billing. The young mother asked something about their insurance, and the clerk said that the policy was for the patient/family to pay the bill and then submit the paperwork to the insurance company for reimbursement. The young couple sat down and began filling out lots of paperwork.

In the meantime, three women came in–one a silver-haired woman in bloodied white slacks and a Walk for the Cure t-shirt, also bloodied. A blue washcloth sat on top of her head.  After a while, two more women and a man joined them.

Another guy in the ER recognized him and as they talked, it was clear that he had recently left law enforcement. They chatted.

While all this was going on, a young boy kept popping the door open from ER itself–he was perhaps 4 or 5 and had a neck brace on.

The former  law enforcement officer talked to the clerk, whom he clearly knew, then came back and told us that there had been a wreck involving at least six people, a lot of them little children.

By this time, we were all talking. The mother had fallen and cut her head. Two of the women were her daughters; one was a daughter-in-law; one was a granddaughter.

People began pouring out of the ER–maybe 8 adults and children, talking Spanish and English. I didn’t see the little boy with the neck brace.

Then another man came out, leaving with the man who’d been talking to the law enforcement guy. Oh, and that law enforcement guy had a little glitter on his forehead–not surprising since he wore a t-shirt advertising a local flower shop, and it’s just a few days after Mardi Gras. The family store? Probably, since part of their conversation seemed to be about what products they had switched to for netting.

The ER was so full at one point that a woman sat in the corridor outside the ER waiting room. The security guard went over to her twice, telling her she wasn’t supposed to sit there. Another woman, holding an infant, joined her. The young woman finally got up, arranged her purse and a blanket, and moved to the other waiting room, never saying a word.

Finally I was allowed into the ER area itself, where I joined my dad. Happily, he was much more alert. He asked how I had found him, and when I told him that I had followed the ambulance and been with him, he was surprised. Didn’t remember anything.

At least two people at different times went in to the cubicle next to ours and talked to a man there; that man has gone.

I heard a young woman asking when she was going to see anyone, and whether she could just leave. Someone finally saw her, I guess.

I think I heard the older woman who fell and cut her head. I think she is gone too.

One nurse came in over an hour ago and took Dad’s temperature. No one has been in our cubicle since then. It is now just after 11pm, and I have been here with Dad since 9:45. The guy in the next cubicle is still here after all–now he’s talking to a nurse.

Dad is sleeping. I am typing.

The ER is still full, despite the car accident crew having cleared out.

I can hear the Cajun man at times, so they’re now in here too.

And the lady who fell and cut her head is still here too.

But each of us is curtained off –providing an illusion of privacy. And it’s quieter now.

The ER is full.

The shift is changing.

The moon isn’t full tonight, either.

And still I sit. Dad’s still sleeping–I wish I could!

Maybe we’ll get a room at some point tonight.

In the meantime, I guess I will eat the cold cheeseburger I thought to buy on my way here.

P.S. : at 11:30,they finally took a chest x-ray and ran an EKG. A med tech drew blood about ten minutes ago.

And I was admonished about the cheeseburger. I violated some policy, apparently. So the unbeaten half is wrapped up and shoved back in its bag with the cold French fries. I refused to throw them away.

At the rate we’re going here, we might not have a room before morning anyway.

I’ll finish the burger for breakfast.

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Road Tested/Road Trip

It’s amazing to me how much more I appreciate road time spent not for the purpose of getting to a doctor’s visit or to dialysis or to visit Dad at Southwind.  Driving for myself, even just driving to Lake Charles or to Houston, provides me with the sheer pleasure of a road trip, no matter how brief.

Luckily, I love to drive- I always have.  And when I say “always,”I mean just that. Some of my earliest memories revolve around cars.  I remember the first car my parents had-and standing up in the back (in that Plymouth coupe there wasn’t a real back seat for adults, but a little kid could stand there and my head was close to the sloping roof. ) Or I could sit with the window open and throw things out, such as my pacifier.  That always precipitated a visit to the local grocery store to replace it.  Yes, I remember those moments, the sensation of the wind on my hand or my head touching the car lining of the sloped roof.

Or the memory of riding in a convertible at the age of 6, perched on the back of the car with my feet dangling into the back seat, my beautiful hooped skirt spread around me as I waved to the crowds at the Crowley Rice Festival as a little princess from Egan Elementary. Frankly, the experience of riding in the convertible was more exciting to me than being in the little queen contest.  I attribute later ownership of a Mazda Miata and now a Mini Cooper convertible directly to this opportunity–and to watching lots of “Route 66” episodes on television.

Maybe my love of driving goes back even earlier, though. When I was born in Beaumont, Texas, my parents lived on Detroit Street, and that clearly influenced the birth announcement they wrote announcing the new 1951 model, with squealing lungs.

Here in Egan, too, I am reminded of when and where I learned to drive: at the age of 8 or 9, on the road by the now-defunct baseball field. I learned on a 1955 Chevy Bel Air automatic, the very first attempt marked by flooding the engine and having to walk home with Dad. (Teaching me was not sheer indulgence, but a practical measure for Dad- if Mother had a panic attack, someone had to be able to drive home.) Shortly after this, I learned to drive the 1956 Chevy truck at Grandad’s farm. It was a stick shift with the stick shift on the wheel; to this day my right hand can go through the shifting motions for that.

Driving was this tied at an early age to responsibility, but also to sheer pleasure.

Now, I get into the car, plug in my iPod, and select appropriate road music . For my trip to Houston last week, I selected Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, the Dixie Chicks, Kinky Friedman, Nanci Griffith,Guy Clark and Steve Earle. I cranked up the sound and sang along, song after song, through songs of sadness and tears and anger and sheer love of beauty and love.

Driving soothes me, isolates me to the moment, allows me to process emotions and events through the songs that shuffle as I drive.   Road trip driving is a very Zen experience. Sometimes I put the roof down so that the wind and sun pull me into the world.  Sometimes I keep the roof up, enclosing me and cocooning me with music and warmth.

Yesterday I drove to Lake Charles to the new Adele cd, thrilling to her voice and song-writing abilities. I was reminded of romance and lost love–and survival.

For brief spells I am afforded the space and time to drive out frustrations or anger or confusion or hurt or loss. Or just to drive for the love of it, the freedom.

Always, though, the road that goes on forever, that goes out and away, also leads back home, and I turn the engine off, step out of the car and lock it, refreshed in spirit if tired in body. Yesterday I drove for escape to my life in Lake Charles. Tomorrow I will drive to the very person who gave me the gift of driving.

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Lost and Found and The Saving Grace of Humor

Dad has been in Southwind Nursing Home for just over two weeks now for rehabilitation — and he’s getting stronger every day, which is wonderful to see.  He’s also getting cranky, another measure by which I gauge his recovery.  For weeks he’d been too weak even to be cranky, just lying around helpless and in pain, sleeping a lot.  Cranky is good:  he’s thinking, he’s judging, and he’s got opinions again.  I like that.

His sense of humor has never left, another bright spot.  It’s a sly sense of humor, usually presaged by a cut of those sharply blue eyes and a slight twinkling in them that warns us something is coming.  Combined with his crankiness, the humor now emerges as he makes cracks to me about whether I’m leaving any money, whether he’ll recognize his own house — and just when someone might think he’s serious, he grins.

Our relationship has always been a close one.  I was and am that very Southern thing, a Daddy’s girl.  But our relationship also been one marked by humor.  My choices for his birthday cards and Father’s Day cards always are funny ones, not the sentimental ones that mark my sister’s (or indeed our late brother’s) sensibility.  And even through these months as his health has declined, it’s been important for me to keep that humor going, trying to balance the role-shifting we’re experiencing.  The humor marks our large comfort zone, our closeness, and our normality.

Even as I was driving him to Crowley to admit him to Southwind, as weak and in pain as he was, Dad managed to surprise me with humor.  Out of nowhere, he announced, “They’re going to auction us off.”  Totally lost, I asked (so eloquently), “Huh?” And he answered, “At that place.  Us old people. They’re going to auction us off.”  As I glanced over to look at him (briefly, because I was, after all, driving), I knew he wasn’t serious — he cut those eyes at me.  So I cracked back, “And what do you think they’re going to get?” He quickly responded “Not much,” and we both laughed.

Even in the pain, he was able to laugh.  Such reassurance and comfort for me with that joke and that laughter, at that moment.  After all, I was driving my father to put him in a nursing home.  All the guilt about abandoning him and the fears that he would believe that we were abandoning him lightened — we still had that known territory of humor.

Daily when I visit him, I hear him and observe his interactions with others, as well as with me and Kay and our friends who visit.  Some days he’s exhausted from dialysis and PT, in pain from the arthritis that pains him now nearly constantly.  If he’s too tired to joke, I take that as a cue.  I sit quietly and talk when he wants, or sit and read while he naps.  Right now, while the house is undergoing renovations, I don’t manage to spend as much time with him as I’d like.  I’m too busy at the house.  But I always make it there for dinnertime — “supper” as we downhome Southerners call it.  Right now they still bring him a tray to his room.  He’s not quite up to going to the dining room — that’s a goal we’re working toward. We talk about the food, and we talk about his teeth.  Why,  you wonder, might we talk about his teeth?

Another complicating factor in his recovery (and there would be one, wouldn’t there?) is that Dad managed to lose his bottom dentures at some point. We only realized in when he was being prepped for the kyphoplasty, when I was putting his dentures in the cup provided.  I put in the top plate, asked for the bottom dentures, and realized he didn’t have them in. At first, I figured that he’d taken them out. They are relatively new, and they haven’t really fit comfortably.  Consequently, Dad developed the habit of taking them out when they bothered him.  He might put them in a shirt pocket.  Or leave them in the bed.  Or put them on his nightstand.  Sometimes, I found them on the floor.

So at first, I didn’t worry.  When we got home from that two-day stay in the hospital, I looked for them.  They were nowhere to be found. Our friend Billie helped me look; she couldn’t find them either.  So besides having to get him ready for the nursing home, I had to take him to our dentist to get fitted for a new bottom plate.  He had two visits in a few days, the first one on the very day he entered Southwind.

All this is to explain one of the problems of his two weeks at Southwind so far.  He can’t eat much.  He eats better some days, but always asks me when his teeth are coming.  Yesterday I could tell him that they’d come in and that I had an appointment for next Tuesday morning.  Soon, he’d have a full set of dentures.  He looks forward to that.  It’s not fun, he tells me, to gum your food to death.  (Humor again, even in adversity, marks both of us.)  When the nurses weighed him one day last week while I was there, he weighed 150 pounds.  I knew he’d lost weight, but that surprised me — and concerned me.  I mean, food is important in Southern (and Cajun) life; we like our food.  It’s part of our lives, our social interactions.  We talk about food a lot.  We trade recipes.  So when Dad doesn’t enjoy food, it’s a problem.  And he is a Texan, too — a real carnivore who likes meat.  It’s hard enough to eat steak or a pork chop or even chicken when your dentures don’t fit right; even chopping food finely doesn’t always help.  But it’s nearly impossible to eat meat when you only have your top dentures.  Defaulting to mashed potatoes, soup, and soft food really reduces your choices.  It also reduces (if not nearly destroys) one of your pleasures in life.

But when I think about it, he hadn’t been eating much other than soft food for a while.  When we talked about it, neither of us could really remember just when he’d last had his bottom teeth.  And maybe it also explained something else I’d noticed for a couple of weeks — his speech had changed a bit, thickened at times.  I attributed it to aging, perhaps even to a small stroke.

It’s too easy, and perhaps too convenient, to attribute changes in aging parents to strokes, small or large.  Perhaps in some cases, the changes result from medications.

In our case, it had a very different reason:  lost dentures.

Now I tell him I’m going to glue the damned new dentures into his mouth if they don’t fit right.  He laughs.  We have that relief once more, the comfort of humor.  And plan for new dietary choices after next Tuesday when he gets the new bottom dentures at last.

Oh, and one of the discoveries as the contractor moved furniture two days ago out of Dad’s room?  The lost dentures — from underneath his chest of drawers.  Just how they got there, we can’t figure out.  The dentures would have to first get behind the chest of drawers and then get pushed under from there.

I tell him our little friends the mice that have decided to co-habit with us this winter, coming in from the field near our house, must have moved them.

Maybe I’ll take them with me today when I go to see him. Tied with a red ribbon, so he can’t lose these.

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Tag Team Sisters

Yes, I live in Egan now.  Again.  After not living here since , oh, 1969 (when I went away to college), and only visiting, it’s an adjustment in many ways.  Living with someone after all this time has probably been the most challenging adjustment.  But not the only one.  So many changes occurred over the years.  Until 1993, we were a family of five: Dad, Mother, me, Phil and Kay. In the 1980s, though. . . that’s when major changes happened.

Mother’s multiple health issues really emerged in the 1980s, leading to a gradual decline and her death in July 1993.  Phil was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 26 in 1983, and fought through that, three subsequent rounds of melanoma, and finally died in January 1996.  For both of them, Dad was the primary caregiver, and Kay and I pitched in and helped when possible and as he would let us.

But after Phil died, and Dad was living alone, there was yet one change, another shift to be negotiated, one in family dynamics.  Dozens of books and essays can be found on birth order of siblings and sibling relationships.  In our family, Mother and Dad had lost a son the year before I was born, so in birth order I was both number two and number one.  Phil was born in 1956 and Kay in 1958.  Typically as we were growing up,  I asserted my “#1” status; I even remember writing that on letters to my parents that I wrote from college.  My brother and sister were enough younger that I really got to know them as teenagers and then adults only years after I’d gone away to college and set out on my own.  By nature I am, I admit, bossy and assertive and too often impatient.  And rather hot-tempered, though I’ve had to learn to control that temper over time. That’s within the family, of course.  In the work-world, and with my friends, my demeanor is strikingly different.  Perhaps being with family means you don’t edit yourself, that you let yourself go — and that’s not always a good or desirable thing.

Phil, as the only son, always seemed to escape any birth-order problems of being the middle child.  Kay, though, was always the baby, no matter how you looked at the equation.

Without Phil sandwiched between us, Kay and I were left as a duo, separated by seven years and very different personalities.  I’m snarky and too often rude to her, in the way sisters can be.  We weren’t close growing up; she was always the little sister.  As adults, though, we have a different relationship, and I’m the one who has had to re-learn how to be a sister, not a little mother or a bossy older sister.  It’s a work in progress, and I backslide, but I work on it.  I can be rude to Kay, and often am — I yell at her as I can yell at no one else.  I know I hurt her at times.  But I’m learning to apologize.

A great deal of this learning has forced itself upon me in the last couple of years, as Dad’s health has declined and as he has needed more and more help.  I may have been the one 45 miles away, but I haven’t been the only one here helping out.  She has been there too.  That I was closer and had the kind of schedule that goes with teaching at university meant that I was the one who could commute, or be at Dad’s in an hour.  She works at a university but doesn’t have the freedom of my former teaching schedule, and she lives about 135 miles away in North Louisiana.  Kay was here, though, all the way, physically when and as she could manage, but also in support and by phone and email and text.

Just before Dad had heart surgery in 2004, he signed power of attorney to me and made a living will; she wasn’t left out — it was just that as the oldest, I got to do the heavy stuff.  That power of attorney is still in force, luckily, and it allows me to assume bill-paying and to make decisions.  But Kay and I work as a team now — a team that tangles and disagrees, as teams do, but a team that comes to agreement and that gets necessary jobs done.

Especially in the last two months, Kay has really made what I do possible.  Being a full-time caregiver for an aging parent who isn’t able to even dress himself, or who needs someone to bring him something for pain, or needs assistance to get to the bathroom means that you sleep with a baby monitor and almost never sleep through the night without interruptions.  Some nights, in fact, I never slept more than an hour at a time.  Add to the mixture getting Dad to dialysis three times a week — for the 6 a.m. shift. (By the way, I am NOT an early morning person by nature, but that 4 a.m. alarm clock rang and I was up and working.) And of course there were also the days I had to get Dad to a doctor’s appointment. My own life in Lake Charles and my friends there, my house and pets?  I became a drop-in visitor in that life.

Kay and I have developed tag-team caregiving.  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that we are developing it, because it’s a work in progress, and one that changes as necessary.   She takes the weekend shift, giving me time to head to Lake Charles and my own house.  I get to visit friends, have coffee, get the mail.  I usually head over on Friday so that I have time for business if necessary.

Even during the week, though, we are in touch daily — usually texting, since it’s not a good thing for her to use the phone for personal reasons unless absolutely necessary during office hours.  Texting is a lovely technology.  I think I text on my phone more than I talk on it.

I make a lot of decisions on my own, but mainly little ones.  Never the big ones.  She and I may not always agree — and I often fall into the exasperated tone of the older sister putting up with a younger baby sister, but I am trying to get over that.  She is an adult, and I am grateful that I don’t have to make these decisions alone, and that she is willing to take part.  I’ve heard so many sad stories about families where only one child does all of the work, and others just abandon all responsibility.  That’s not the case here.  It’s just that I’m always battling that older-sister mentality to recognize my baby sister as an adult who is my partner in caring for our father.  And to accept that we handle things differently.  Very differently.

Years ago, Kay and I watched a movie with Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, “The Whales of August” (1987).  Two elderly widowed sisters live together; one is blind and really kind of bitchy and the other is gentler and a little ditzy.  We immediately laughed and saw ourselves:  I would be the Bette Davis sister — blind (I had horrible vision until cataracts and lens replacement) and bitchy.  She would be the gentler kind of ditzy Lillian Gish sister.  Well, I’m not blind, and we’re not really living together, but we are having to co-parent our father and share the same house.  And share the responsibilities of decisions.  “The Whales of August” pops up from time to time in my head, reminding me that Kay and I can and have laughed together.  Reminding me to enjoy our relationship and differences, not fight them all the time.

Oh, we argue lately about where to move what piece of furniture, and I get angry and snarky and then apologize.  I act as though I expect her to be here all the time, which she can’t be.  I act as though I expect her to work in the same way I do.  She doesn’t.  Daily I am learning to apologize and to be grateful daily for the sister I have.  She has gifts I don’t:  she is gentler and softer.  I have edges.  She has the financial/business skills honed by years of financial statements she produced at various car dealerships and now at a university.  I handle my finances with ease, yet find it challenging (if honest, near-impossible) to balance my checkbook.  And now I have to handle Dad’s finances too — but not alone.  I may sign off on things, but she has the knowledge and skills that our mother did and I have never managed, or wanted to learn.

A few days ago I found myself yelling over the phone about something, something I can’t even remember now.  I pulled back almost immediately and told her I was just panicking and that I was working under a (self-imposed) 20-day schedule.  At a minimum, Dad is in Southwind Nursing Home for rehab for 20 days; then Medicare requires that staff re-evaluate whether he’s making progress.  He is allowed to stay as long as 100 days as long as he makes progress and cooperates with physical therapy, but Medicare requires constant evaluation.  Consequently, we don’t really know how long Dad is going to be there.

Thus my sense of having to get the house ready in 20 days.  Yesterday was Day 14.  Amazing progress so far — the wheelchair ramp and porch were done in two days. I fully expect the bathrooms to be done by the end of next week and the new vinyl flooring down.  I will have thrown out the detritus of years and moved furniture back in place (I hope).  We’ve decided to put Dad’s bedroom in the living room, and use his bedroom as a sitting room/office with a daybed.  What furniture and where the furniture goes in his new bedroom — that’s been what we disagree about.  Take-charge do-it-myself Cheryl:  I don’t want to run around three rooms getting everything I need; I want it there.  Equal-partner Kay:  leave certain pieces that I was determined to move.  Final decision: I compromised; so did she.  I will put Dad’s chest of drawers in the living room.  I will leave the library table with photos.  I will leave the handmade chest from Sweden.  I will move my computer and bookcase.

If Day 21 comes and Southwind and Medicare decide to send Dad home, then the house will be ready.  If on the other hand Dad stays on in Southwind for more rehab (which Kay reminds me is likely), then the house will be done and we can relax.  In the meantime, I am more hyper and frantic at times as I look at the chores/tasks yet to do — and often feel absolutely hopeless.  But that feeling generally passes, and I simply pick out one task to focus on and manage — rather than fall into the trap of paralysis.

No one “loses” in this — that’s not the point of renovating and reorganizing.  The point is that Dad’s needs are met, in a way that is functional for us to be caregivers but that also leaves him a sense of familiarity, as well as a sense of dignity and independence. He’s already remarked that he wants to recognize the house he comes home to! Of course, once he is home, we have to re-assess what works and what needs changing.  My friend Charles, who lives across the street and cares for his mother, has done this longer than we have and he is our touchstone here:  he reminds us to be flexible and to expect to change things as needed.

And that’s why I am schlepping bags of trash to the dumpster and organizing the construction work, living in a house that looks like an episode of “Hoarders” is about to be filmed.   When Kay comes in on Saturday, she will have other tasks that I’ve neglected.  Having to juggle two bank accounts in the midst of all the medical issues and doctor’s visits and hospital stays and caregiving . . .  somehow not all bills got paid on time, and I recorded checks but haven’t subtracted anything.  I must learn to record all the monthly bills, not just the checks.  I manage it with my own checking account, though not in the business fashion that Mother did and Kay does.  I didn’t get that bookkeeping gene, and Kay has it super-strength. That’s why she will come in on Saturday and take the checkbook that I’ve faithfully recorded all checks in, use the bank statements, and reconcile Dad’s account.

My journey here has humbled me often, and learning to share has not been easy.  It is, however, richly rewarding. My baby sister is an adult.  I’m learning to share and to apologize.  I’m learning I don’t have to do it all alone, and that’s comforting.  I have Kay and my dear friends and neighbors here in Egan who make daily life possible when I have to juggle things and be two places and once, and I have friends and relatives elsewhere who are incredibly generous with their hearts and willingly put up with me.

Tag-team sisters may bicker and fight, but love makes it all possible.

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Brave New World!

I retired from university teaching in May 2011.  For years, my plans geared me to being able to retire at 60 and then be free to travel any time I wanted to travel, not just at semester breaks.  I could teach part-time, take students abroad if possible, even teach on-line.  And of course, there would be ample time now for writing all those half-started essays and books.

Nope.  Not quite.

Some background: My mother died in 1993, and since then Dad has lived on his own.  He managed his own house in Egan, Louisiana, and worked with his sister to maintain the family farm in East Texas.  I always joked that my dad actually clocked more road time than I did.  Well into his 80s, Dad still maintained the schedule of a trip to the farm every two weeks.  Even after going on dialysis and having cardiac bypass surgery in 2004, he kept going.  He drove himself to dialysis.  He shopped and kept the house up and drove to the farm and worked there –just a little slower as time passed.  For the last few years, my sister and I had talked about things we noticed:  he was a little more unsteady on his feet, for example.  And the house wasn’t kept as clean as it had been.  But Dad just kept going.

Then infections with the dialysis graft in his arm began to occur — the first one serious enough that we worried whether we’d lose him or he’d lose his arm. I taught online for a week and stayed in the hospital with him.  This became the pattern that marked my life for the last years of my career.  Dad went into hospital for a few days; I slept on the couch or chair or whatever and taught online and commuted.

My sister helped as she could — but she lives almost three hours away and I live only 45 miles away from Dad.

The last two semesters that I taught, though, things changed.  He was in the hospital more frequently, and came out weaker than before.  I stayed with him more and more.  I commuted a lot.  More than I wanted.  I love driving, but learned that I hate daily commuting. I kept some clothes and necessities at Dad’s, but still considered that I was “visiting” him.  In February or March last year (over Mardi Gras break, I know), Dad drove himself to the hospital emergency room in Crowley with pain and amazing constipation; the hospital admitted him and failed to notify either my sister or me, though I am listed to be contacted.  In fact, he was there several days before we knew where he was, and though he was still confused and disoriented, were ready to release him when my sister and I managed to get there. The confusion was new, and disturbing, but sadly not uncommon with geriatric patients. He recovered, but was weaker than before.

Then in May, just before I retired, he developed pneumonia and ended up in the hospital.  I uploaded my final grades from his room. He was released from the hospital and hasn’t driven since. He came home on oxygen.  I began retirement with a new job.  Daddy’s Little Helper.

Even then, though, I managed to spend a few days a week in Lake Charles, at my own home, with my pets and my life.  Neighbors helped me out.  Dad was using a walker (most of the time, anyway).  He cooked meals (though I suspect he ate a lot of sandwiches) and washed clothes.  He wasn’t driving, and he didn’t like it.  I even managed to spend six weeks in Greece in the summer.  In September, I spent a week in London with friends.

However, I could see that Dad was weakening.  He tripped more.  He fell, but luckily didn’t break anything.  In late October, we traveled to the farm for a family work weekend.

That was when some little voice told me to travel while I could:  and I did.  The day after Thanksgiving, I left for three weeks — most of it in Athens, and then four days in London on the return.

The little voice was right: four days before I returned, Dad tripped on his oxygen tubing.  From then through the end of December, his pain increased daily and so did his ability to ambulate.  By the end of December, he moaned in pain and needed help dressing because he could barely lift his legs.  After three weeks and three tests, the diagnosis came in:  he had an L1 compression fracture.   By the time he had kyphoplasty to stabilize the compression fracture, he needed me to dress him and feed him and bathe him.  The kyphoplasty went well on a Tuesday; we came home on Wednesday.  By Monday, it was clear that something was going on — Dad was increasingly confused.  On Monday I picked him up from dialysis, got him to his doctor, and she put him in the hospital.  By that night, he was delusional.  Even when he was briefly asleep, he was active — climbing poles and pulling wire, from years of work as an electrician. When awake, he talked incessantly.  To his late brother and cousins.  To me, warning me about not running over the dogs in the road.  He pointed to the ceiling; he saw turkeys in fields.  He tried to climb out of the hospital bed more times than I could keep track of. By Wednesday the doctor ordered something to relieve the anxiety, and it worked.  He slept on Wednesday night and so did I. Finally.  He came home on Friday, the lingering confusion cleared over the next few days, and on the following Thursday I admitted him to a nursing home for rehabilitation.

While he’s there, I’m having the house made wheelchair accessible.  As I type this blog, contractors are ripping out bathtubs and old linoleum.

I am no longer under the illusion that I live in Lake Charles, not really.  I live here in Egan, with Dad, and I visit my old home in Lake Charles.  For now.

And so this blog:  it’s a brave new world, and I’m discovering myself daily, re-inventing myself, and cherishing the gift of time with Dad.

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