Blowin’ in the wind

Thanksgiving was over a week ago but a conversation I had with my sister-in-law, Suemi still lingers in my mind-like so much leftover turkey you don’t know what to do with.

We found ourselves alone in the kitchen the morning after the holiday, everyone else was still passed out from turkey overdose, so we had a chance to have a private chat.

“Mom surprised me,” she said.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen her and she looks so old, I’m surprised that she’s still walking so slow and using a cane. She doesn’t seem sure of her balance, always reaching out to grab onto something, like she thinks she’s going to fall. She’s how old? Seventy-three? Wow, by the way she walks and acts she looks ten years older.”

“It’s not only that”, she continued, “I can tell that she’s not the same, she’s not as confident as she used to be. I can see when I look into her face that something has changed.”

I listened, well aware of her metamorphosis into an “old lady”. Just a few years ago-before her diagnosis, she was active, independent and fearless, people were surprised when they found out how old she was. I listened, remembering who she was and quietly judging myself and wondering if I was being judged for her decline.

Suemi was surprised when I told her ho much Miss Cathy slept.

“Oh wow, that’s a lot!” she said eyes wide with amazement, “she can live another twenty years like that……just sleep, no work, no stress. A lot of old people live a long time that way.”

“Believe me I know,” I said nodding that I felt the same, “she’s like a bear hibernating through the rest of her life.”

But, she’s not completely stress free I reminded her, she still has her temper. Then I regaled my sister-in-law with some of the highlights of Miss Cathy’s rants against enemies and evils real and imagined.

I was kind of surprised that Suemi had seen so much change in Miss Cathy in just the space of three or four months.

She reminded me of the reason why I started this blog in the first place. I was very aware when I moved here that it was important to record the progression of her disease. I knew that change when come when I was busy tending to her and before I knew it ‘who she is’ would be the new normal and l would have forgotten how she ‘used to be’.

Tough as it is, these are the Halcyon days of Alzheimer’s, she’s still stage one dementia but the curtain can lift on stage two at any time and those challenges will make the previous diagnosis seem ‘quaint’ so I wanted to be sure to write it all down so that I could remind myself that it wasn’t all bad.

With caregivers, it seems that you deal with the person as they are “that day” and quickly you forget how it’s different from yesterday’s issues and challenges.

Some things, like the love you feel for them-and they for you are constant but everything else is kinda up for grabs. But knowing that, hell, and even writing about it doesn’t prepare you for an outsider’s observation (an outsider being anyone that isn’t their caregiver and hasn’t seen your loved one for awhile-be they friend or family) that validates your purpose.

Suemi held up a mirror so that I could see Miss Cathy (and myself) and it hit me that Thanksgiving this year is yet another marker of change in our family. We’re not a particularly sentimental bunch (well, I am but I’ve long maintained that someone made a scramble with the babies when I was born and I was left with the wrong people-all evidence and my striking familial resemblance to the clan aside).

Anyway, Thanksgiving became important to us as a family back in1997. It was the last time my pop was healthy enough to celebrate the holiday before cancer took him away the following spring. He’d been in the hospital just days before and the doctors weren’t holding out hope that he’d ever leave (alive) but he proved them wrong buy not only getting better, he sat at his place at Tony’s holiday table and ate like a man half his age and filled the room with his deep Barry White baritone and laughter. Since then we’ve made it a point to get together on the last Thursday in November.

And now, after not being at Tony’s last year because Miss Cathy just didn’t want to go we were all together this year but it’s different now. Not only do we have the memory of pop at the thanksgiving table to top our list of thanks, this year we add Miss Cathy’s joy and spontaneous “Star spangled banner”.

We will come together next here but the reality is that she probably won’t be the same but who knows, maybe she’ll surprise us and sing her favorite Bob Dylan song:

“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the canon balls fly before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind”.


Turkey Hash

I was in the car driving Miss Cathy over to my brother’s for Thanksgiving; it was quiet so I turned on the radio to pass the time. NPR was in the middle of an interview with an author (I didn’t catch his name or the title of his book) who was from a family of ten children and even though they grew up in great poverty each child went to college, became successful and distinguished themselves in many different fields.

The radio host, Diane Reims asked to what did he attribute his and his siblings’ dedication to education and life accomplishments. The author said that their mother, a woman who had very little schooling herself instilled in them a passion for learning and was the reason they were all so successful.

Upon hearing this I looked at Miss Cathy seated in the backseat through the rearview mirror and said, “Hey, they could be talking about you.”

To which she responded, “Well, where was the daddy?” “Doesn’t he deserve any of the credit?” “Makes me sick how it’s always the mother that gets all the praise.”

“Oh my, the dealer passes”, I thought to myself. Instigating a rant about how fathers don’t get enough credit for their offspring’s success was not my intent. Listening to the author reminded me how much my brother and I owe Miss Cathy. I was just trying to pay the old bird a compliment as we were stuck in traffic on our way to eat a bird of the Butterball variety.

I tried to interrupt to remind her that I trying to give her a compliment but it was too late; she was already in full career. But, like so many conversations I have with her these days you never know what she’s going to say or how long she’s going to stay on topic.

I have learned that her ‘’default’ response is something negative (see exchange above for proof). I took a detour off t Interstate 95 (it can take you from Maine to Florida to see grandma and that’s apparently what everyone was doing that Thanksgiving morning).

The rest of the ride was pleasant; I’d switched to the classical station for the duration of the drive to avoid any further conversation.

Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s had become a tradition for years after my Pop died as it was the last time the entire family had been together before he died in 1998. We didn’t come over last year because Miss Cathy just didn’t want to leave home so it was nice to all be together again, even if it was just for a couple of days.

As always, my sister-in-law, Suemi set a beautiful table worthy of a photo spread in Food &Wine magazine. We all took our usual places at the table, assigned long ago; Tony and Suemi at the ends, Nile across from me and Zachary across from Miss Cathy with Tony on her right. After the prayer led by my mother we began the meal. The meal started and we’d all begun to fill our plates and bellies with all the traditional goodies in front of us. We were chattering along, nothing memorable or of great consequence, just the typical conversations families engage in when they’re all together for a holiday when all of a sudden Miss Cathy started to sing,” what so proudly we hail from the twilight’s last gleaming”.

When she got to the end of the stanza she wasn’t sure of the next line so I started singing along, feeding her the words, encouraging her to continue. So she sang on, this time louder and with more confidence, her voice clear and surprisingly melodic.

Tony joined in and soon the three of us were singing as the other looked on smiling. Tony nodded for Zach and Nile to join in and Suemi did as well, the entire family singing what we remembered of he Star Spangled Banner:

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming

And the rockers’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

When we finished I led the applause. It was a wonderful, corny, spontaneous movie moment, out of nowhere and out of context. A lot like my life living with Miss Cathy; unexpected and full of surprised-just without the singing usually.